“Lift Our Children Above Malaria’s Burden” by Sonia Chiamaka Okorie

2015 Child Rights Essay Competition: 3rd Place, Group 3 (College/University Students)

Sonia Chiamaka Okorie – Chestnut Hill, MA / Boston College

Sonia Chiamaka OkorieMalaria is a devastating example of the way the interconnected web of health, education, nutrition, and socioeconomic status takes a toll on the most vulnerable people. This tightly coiled web is the reason the disease continues to take the lives of mothers, brothers, and sisters, despite its preventability. When we attempt to grasp the extent of its mortality, it becomes obvious who bears the heaviest burden: children. When a child falls ill with malaria and is unable to be treated, it is as if the web tightens across their limbs, impeding their movement towards academic success and economic improvement.

It is crucial to focus on children because they are biologically more susceptible to malaria. In high-transmission areas, for example, children do not yet have the partial immunity of adults, so there are more cases of severe malaria and rapid progression to death (“Malaria in Children”). Children are also more likely to develop anemia, hypoglycemia, and cerebral malaria than adults (“Malaria in Children”). Their sensitivity to malaria is evident in statistics; malarial mortality and morbidity rates are higher for children than any other population affected. Malaria is more than a biological problem however, its breadth encompasses the education and economic success of children.

Think of a sick child as one less student. Repeated infections of malaria cause absenteeism that hinders the ability to succeed alongside healthy classmates. A severe case of malaria can cause neurological and cognitive damage in children, which impedes their education, reduces their career opportunities, and lowers productivity in adult age (“Annual Report 2013”). Across malaria-stricken regions, lost job and school days lead to lower productivity and prevention of communities from prevailing over poverty (“Annual Report 2013”). Malaria may also exacerbate other diseases, such as diarrhea, or cause anemia. A child, therefore, is likely to suffer from co-morbidities that delay their recovery. It is unacceptable for malaria to rob a student’s education. Without academic advancement, a child has limited opportunity to gain personal and economic independence.

Think of a sick child as one less worker. Malaria affects people across the socioeconomic scale but is most devastating on those who are poor. Impoverished people cannot typically access funds to purchase preventative vaccines or nets, and they are unable to afford clinical treatment if they develop the disease. A sick child becomes one less source of income, and can also cause a parent to leave work so they can serve as a caregiver. If a child experiences repeated infections, the economic consequences are grave. Malaria is more than a disease, it is embedded in a cycle that allows a repetitive oppression of the weakest.

To break this cycle, public health leaders have monumental obstacles to overcome. According to the World Health Organization, Africa alone has 90% of all malaria-related deaths, and 77% of these deaths are in children aged under five years old (“Annual Report 2013”). 77% is an overwhelming percentage, which makes it tempting to address the problem simply as a number that needs to be reduced. To connect with the gravity of malarial death, however, a child cannot be reduced to a statistic. Public health stems from a fundamental understanding that care encompasses more than the life of one child; the benefits extend to their mothers, fathers, and countries. Rather than being intimidated by the work to be done, public health leaders have to ask themselves, if not children, then who? Who will be the next generation of nurses and teachers? Who will lead the development of the nation?

We change the future of our children by empowering them. We teach them about symptoms and bednets. We provide free or subsidized healthcare for them and their families so they receive necessary immunizations and supplements. We fund and make available health workers who can diagnose and treat malaria. Finally, we build a cross-generational and cross-traditional infrastructure to sustain our progress. By empowering mothers, village leaders, health workers, and other communally important figures, we change more than the effect of the disease; we create a cultural shift. Children are resilient, adaptable, and overflowing with potential. They are also vulnerable, dependent, and need us even more when faced with the consequences of pediatric malaria.

When I look at the global toll of this difficult, preventative disease, I pause and reflect on my role. For a long time, I understood my world as a series of similarities or dissimilarities: some people are like me, some people are unlike me. Unknowingly, I created a distance between what I perceived as ‘my world’ and ‘their world’. In the routine that our privilege affords us, it is easy to forget that every being sees the same sun risen above, and sleeps to the same, illuminated moon. Rather than building an impermeable barrier we are obliged to find the humanity in each child we see. In the words of Terentius Lucanus, “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,” meaning, “I am a human being; I consider nothing human to be foreign to me” (“Nihil Philosophicum”). When we share in the plight of our children, we adopt their pain and strive to ensure their joy. We take the most important step in public health, away from service and towards advocacy.


“Annual Report 2013.” Roll Back Malaria. World Health Organization, May 2014. Web. 06 Sept. 2015.
“Malaria in Children Under Five.” WHO. World Health Organization, 6 Apr. 2014. Web. 06 Sept. 2015.
“Nihil Philosophicum a Nobis Alienum Putamus.” ‘Maverick Philosopher’ Maverick Philosopher, 28 Dec. 2013. Web. 06 Sept. 2015.