A simple plant battles malaria & gives hope in rural Africa

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HORN OF AFRICA — Every 30 seconds, a child in Africa dies of malaria.

But it doesn't have to happen. Malaria often can be prevented. When that's not possible, malaria can be treated. And it can be done simply and inexpensively.

In one rural area of the Horn of Africa, missionaries are helping with a project that aims to greatly reduce the number of people who suffer from malaria by using a simple remedy that can be readily available, even in the most remote areas.

Drawing on a little more than $10,000 from the Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund, local believers and field partners are distributing starts of Artemisia annua, a plant that has proven effective in treating malaria when its dried leaves are brewed as a tea. Use of Artemisia to treat fever dates back more than 17 centuries to ancient China.

"This area has a population of more than 4 million people and one of the highest incidence rates of malaria in the whole country," said William Arnold*, a development worker who is a field partner of Baptist Global Response, an international relief and development organization. "Because the area is so rural, 60 percent of the population is a least a half-day's walk from the nearest health post or clinic."

If malaria isn't treated fairly quickly, the illness becomes much more severe, especially when its victim already is weakened by hunger — as many people in the Horn of Africa are. Because early symptoms of malaria are similar to other illnesses, a person who lives in a remote area may simply not get to a doctor in time.

"By providing a local source for Artemisia plants, individual farmers can have access to their own source for the treatment of malaria," Arnold said. "By distributing the plants, Southern Baptists are able to provide an effective treatment option for people in remote rural areas."

In just the past year, more than 2,500 Artemisia plants have been distributed to 800 farmers and their families, giving approximately 10,000 people access to their own treatment for malaria, Arnold said. As news of the project spread by word of mouth, from family to family and neighbor to neighbor, demand for more plants has increased.

So far, at least 10 areas have set up Artemisia gardens and a local government development leader who was transferred to another district has said he wants to establish an Artemisia distribution initiative in that area as well.

Interest in the plant isn't limited to malaria treatments either.

"Where there is almost no health care, people who have grown Artemisia have used it to treat many other things," Arnold said. "Because of the plant's properties, it is effective in treating worms, amoebas, wounds, headaches and asthma. That has increased the interest in the plant."

Several farmers have expressed interest in growing the plants themselves, Arnold said. That would allow the program to expand with almost no additional cost.

Projects like this establish relationships that allow development workers to show people other ways to improve the quality of their lives, said Jim Brown, U.S. director for Baptist Global Response.

"It's really exciting to see how many people's lives can be touched with a small investment," Brown said. "By connecting people in need with people who care, we have opportunities to see people begin experiencing full and meaningful lives.

"We want to help people find hope and peace and be inspired with the confidence they need to raise their families and build their communities with dignity," Brown said. "And then you can watch it multiply as they share that new life with others."


*Name changed for security reasons.