The net effect of deadly malaria

Marita Adelino is not your average 10-year-old.

In a world where children typically want so much, she wants only two things -- a best friend and a mosquito net. Yearning for a friend is sketched across her face, a portrait of loneliness.

And the desire for a mosquito net? Marita is terrified of the tiny, sinister creatures that spread malaria, the disease that killed her best friend, Marta João, last year.

Marita cared for her sick friend, cradling her head as it burned with fever, lifting cup after cup of cool water to Marta’s lips. But malaria won, and now Marita is alone.

Amid the happy warble of learning at Muera Primary School in Mozambique’s Zambezia Province, Marita sits quietly at her desk. Headmaster Abrão Salimo Cassamo, 45, says she is a different girl since her friend died.

He, too, misses Marta João. “We really had high hopes for that child,” he says. “She would have changed something.”

Malaria, which killed 655,000 people worldwide in 2010, is a major killer of African children.

“The saddest thing is that you lose a person not knowing their full capacity -- what might have been,” says Chandana Mendis, who directs the Global Fund Malaria Project for World Vision. “These children are the buds which will never flower.”

Marta’s father, Manuel João, 43, lost four children -- three to malaria. Aissa died on the back of Manuel’s bicycle as he pedaled madly to get her to the hospital in 2007.

Another daughter, Rebeca, lived for one year and five months; she died in 2009.

Marita Adelino, 10, talks with Manuel João, father of Marta, her best friend who died from malaria last year. (Photo: Jon Warren/World Vision)

And then he lost Marta. “She was a very loveable person,” he says. “In our African families, the girls, although they are small, they are like mothers. They are so caring.”

Marta was her parents’ helpmate. She fetched firewood and water and cared for her younger siblings.

“She was so alive,” he says. “She would say, ‘I want to be a teacher. I want to be a nurse.’”

Marta’s absence leaves a palpable void. “I feel that something has left me,” Manuel says. “I have nothing to lean on.”

Marta was bitten in January 2011, during the high season for malaria when it is hot and wet in Mozambique. Water stands in pools and puddles. The mosquitos breed and bite.

The female anopheles mosquito spreads the disease. She needs a blood meal before she mates; if a family has no mosquito net, anyone can be her victim.

Malaria is a disease of poverty. An insecticide-treated net can prevent death, but even the few dollars a net costs can be largely out of reach in Mozambique, where the national per capita income is $400 -- about a dollar a day. Farmers like Manuel earn far less than that.

“Malaria is like war,” he says. “But it’s a big war. It’s not a small war. In a war, you can negotiate. But with malaria, you cannot. With war, maybe there is a place of peace. But with malaria, you cannot find a peaceful place. If there was, we would all go there together.”

Marta received a mosquito net too late. When death came, her parents followed tradition and buried her with all of her earthly possessions, including the net. They wrapped their once-bright, vibrant daughter in the blue gossamer threads and laid her in the earth.

Marita did not go to Marta’s funeral. But she still goes to visit her friend’s family. “We are happy she comes,” says Manuel. “We see that our daughter lives in her.”

Malaria -- a completely preventable, treatable disease -- was eradicated in the United States more than 60 years ago. But in the developing world, it continues to steal lives needlessly. There's no reason it should.

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