First Lady Calls for Action to End Malaria In December 2006, President Bush set aside April 25 as Malaria Awareness Day. First Lady Laura Bush speaks to Farai Chideya about her travels in Africa and the administration's efforts to stop one of the world's deadliest diseases.
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First Lady Calls for Action to End Malaria

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First Lady Calls for Action to End Malaria

First Lady Calls for Action to End Malaria

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From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Three thousand children die from malaria everyday, but the disease is both preventable and curable. In fact, America wiped out malaria here at home years ago. Sub-Saharan Africa is the center of the epidemic, and now the Bush administration is putting its weight behind an international effort to end malaria worldwide. The president pledged more than a billion dollars to the cause. He also named today the First Annual Malaria Awareness Day.

Now, First Lady Laura Bush has made this cause her own. I got the chance to speak with the First Lady about her efforts to stop one of the world's deadliest diseases. She shared her thoughts on other issues as well, including faith-based leadership and the fight against AIDS. But she began our conversation with the personal story about a recent trip to Africa.

Ms. LAURA BUSH (First Lady): When I was in Rwanda, Mrs. Kagami had a luncheon for me with all the women leaders, and the government of Rwanda has a lot of women leaders. And I asked around my table, has everyone here had malaria? Just wondering if it was really as common as it seems to be, and they laughed and said yes. Everyone of them had had malaria, mainly as children and at this age, had sort of developed, you know, a little bit of an immunity.

I know that malaria is a huge problem, and the reason it's so important for us in the United States and for people around the world to talk about it is because we know it can be eradicated. And because it can be permanently eradicated, it's really, I think, a moral imperative on everyone to make sure that happens in Africa.

CHIDEYA: What is your goal with this National Malaria Awareness Day? There obviously have been - you've had other events in the past, but this is the first one. And what do you hope to accomplish with this?

Ms. BUSH: That's right. Today is the First National Malaria Day. This day was designated last December at a White House summit and conference on malaria. What we hope to accomplish is really to just get the word out, so that people know that malaria is still a problem in many parts of the world.

We had malaria in the United States. There was malaria here in Washington, along the Potomac, as well as along the Mississippi and in a great part of the Southeastern part of the United States. And we know it's eradicated. We eradicated it around the first of the last century. So we know it can be eradicated, and that makes it even more imperative for all us who work together to make sure it's eradicated across sub-Saharan Africa.

You feel so bad and so sick when you have malaria that you wish you would just go ahead and die, one friend told me who had had it. We know that not only is it so difficult on everyone and on families to lose their children, but also it's very difficult on government and economies. When a lot of people are too sick to work, when the hospitals are filled with people with malaria, it really is very difficult for economies to get a good footing.

CHIDEYA: What's America's stake in this? And I don't mean even just the U.S. government, but there are a lot of issues that Americans have on their minds right now: the economy, national security, all of these issues. Why would someone who's already feeling maybe a little overburdened tune in to this one?

Ms. BUSH: Because there is something people can do that's very, very direct. And especially, I'd like to reach out families to think about involving your children in this. If you can raise $10, you can call Malaria No More or look on the Internet, malarianomore, and be able to give an insecticide-treated bed net to a child or a mother and a child in Africa and save a life.

I think for children especially - and there's a great a little book that's Scholastic-produced with Malaria No More called "Nets or Nice." And it's about basketball nets and butterfly nets and fishing nets. And then it's also about mosquito nets. And it's written for first graders. You can download it for free off the Malaria No More Web site. And then Scholastic is also distributing it for free to schools around the country.

So it's a great way for young people in the United States, and particularly children, to learn about Africa - that continent that seems so exotic and has the animals that everyone in the world are fascinated with - to learn also what American children can do to directly reach children in Africa. And one thing to do is to raise money for mosquito nets.

CHIDEYA: A lot of times in developing countries - including African nations -different diseases basically work together to keep people in a state of ill health. So you have not only malaria. You also have TB. You also have AIDS. And I know that you have also worked with AIDS in Africa, and your daughter, Barbara, was in…

Ms. BUSH: Hospital in Cape…

CHIDEYA: …a hospital in Cape Town, and the Kayalitcha townships there are places where the AIDS infection rate is extremely high. Do you see these different pieces of the puzzle fitting together? And what would you like to do about the broader picture of health in Africa?

Ms. BUSH: Well, they really do fit together, and the other piece that's a part of it is malnutrition. If your immune system is already compromised because of HIV or malaria or tuberculosis, malnutrition is that much harder on you. So there should be a very comprehensive approach to both eradicating malaria, and at the same time training people with HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis and making sure that people get the food that they need - the nutrition they need to stay in good health.

I just read - you probably read this same article. I think it was in the - maybe the Wall Street Journal. In Kenya, some programs that are not only treating AIDS with antiretrovirals, but they're also encouraging families to become farmers to grow some of their own food as they also distribute food. But as people get stronger, after they get over the malnutrition, they're much better able to handle diseases. So it's all a big part. There are a lot of -each one has a part in eradicating malaria.

Another important part is education. And this also goes along with malaria and HIV/AIDS, and that is to make sure people know how to use a bed net safely, how to use indoor spraying in a way that's safe for everyone, what the medicines are. Some of these medicines for malaria have become resistant because people abuse them incorrectly, although there now are new combination therapies that are much more effective.

And then, of course, the education on how to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds, the standing water and the other places that mosquitoes breed. So there's an education piece that fits in all of it. And certainly, we know that education for children across the continent of Africa will really mean a huge difference for the next generation.

CHIDEYA: You've been very conscious of bringing faith-based organizations to Africa as you've traveled there, as the administration of your husband has included faith-based organizations in all different walks of social programs. What is the upside to you, and is there a downside to doing that?

Ms. BUSH: Well, the upside is that many of these faith-based organizations are already there, and this includes churches and synagogues that are there, that are local. They're already on the ground. They're in many parts of Africa. They are the one really trusted group - the church in the local community or the mosque. They already have a congregation in a way to reach out to, for instance, pass out bed nets or to help with spraying.

Catholic Charities is also very active. There are number of evangelical churches, World Vision and other - number of others. I know that Rick Warren is very active in a number of countries in Africa.

Working with local pastors when I was in Africa before, one of the most moving moments I had is when I went to one of these sites where pastors of local churches were revealing their HIV status. And because of the stigma associated with HIV, many people won't even be tested. They don't even want to know because they don't want to be discriminated against because of their HIV status.

But pastors had realized that if they let their congregations know what their own HIV status was, that they can encourage their congregations to get tested, to start on the antiretrovirals, and really to live with AIDS instead of worrying about dying from it.

CHIDEYA: In South Africa, the government has been criticized recently for not doing enough to stop AIDS - from everything ranging from the rape case, which ultimately did not result in a conviction against the deputy president, and then a view that the government as a whole has not been active enough. In the U.S., at this current point, we do not emphasize condoms as much as we emphasize abstinence when we talk about AIDS. Do you see that as a risk in America's role in fighting AIDS in Africa and around the world?

Ms. BUSH: Well, the president's emergency plan on AIDS relief does emphasize the ABC program that's been effective in Uganda, which is abstinence, be faithful, and use - consistent use of condoms. So they do - they realize that there's a role for everything.

I think there's a lot of criticism of discussing abstinence, but I think in a society where there are a lot of gender issues, it's very important for girls to know that they do not have to comply with the wishes of men, and that girls can remain abstinent. I think it's an important message for - especially for girls to get, but for boys, too.

The other two pieces that - being faithful with only one partner so that you don't either spread HIV if you already have it, or get HIV and then give it to your wife or to your partner. And then that use of condoms, especially if you know you have HIV. That's a very, very important piece to protect your partners.

And each part is important. Condoms are very important, and the use of condoms are very important. And we need to have that message out, for sure. But I also think that the other two messages are important as well.

It's been very, very interesting for me, and very fulfilling. And I hope the American people know what good they are doing around the world with a lot of these initiatives through our government, as well as so many private initiatives and charities and churches that have reached out everywhere.

CHIDEYA: Thank you for being so generous with your time. First Lady Laura Bush, thank you.

Ms. BUSH: Thanks so much. Bye-bye.

CHIDEYA: First Lady Laura Bush joined us by phone from the White House. For more on what you can do to help stop malaria and to hear Mrs. Bush talk about her legacy as a first lady, go to our Web site - And while you're there, you can also subscribe to NEWS & NOTES' daily podcast.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Just ahead, we'll wrap up the latest news from Iraq, and a new book tallies the cost of immigration.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: This is NPR News.

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