By Ashley Judd
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Ashley Judd is an actress, a board member of Population Services International, and a global ambassador for its Five & Alive initiative, which aims to improve the health of children under five.
NEW YORK (CNN) -- In the time it takes you to read this article, four African children will die from malaria. Before the day is over, it will claim the lives of 3,000 children.
This is the terrible reality of malaria. Though eradicated in the United States in 1951, it continues to plague the poorest places around the world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. This April 25th marks the first ever Malaria Awareness Day in the United States. But we need more than awareness. We need action.
My interest in malaria prevention began when I traveled to Africa in 2005 and visited Population Services International programs in Kenya. In a country where approximately 90 children die daily of malaria, PSI is working to establish a "net culture," using extensive marketing and education to encourage the population to sleep under an insecticide-treated net every night. (Watch Judd describe how anyone can help fight malaria )
I had the opportunity to lead a malaria prevention demonstration myself at a neonatal clinic in Kenya. Despite the constant threat of deadly mosquito bites, the audience of pregnant women and recent mothers didn't have access to nets. Yet, they were curious and attentive as we demonstrated how bed nets can protect them and their children from the disease. Talking with a few mothers afterwards, I was convinced they would use the nets themselves and ensure their families did too.
In a recent Gallup poll, only 30 percent of Americans identified malaria as a "very serious" problem, yet the numbers on the ground tell a different story. Forty percent of the world's population is at risk of contracting malaria. There are between 350 and 500 million diagnosed cases each year, resulting in more than 1 million deaths annually. It remains the number one killer of children under the age of five in Africa. For too many people, death by mosquito bite is a daily menace.
The most shameful part of this story is that malaria is preventable and treatable. We could end this devastation today.
Malaria is a disease of the blood transmitted from person to person by mosquito bite. It causes severe, flu-like symptoms including fever and vomiting. Left untreated, it can lead to coma, brain damage, life-threatening anemia and death.
While scientists are hard at work trying to create a vaccine for malaria, this could take years. Fortunately, we don't have to wait-the tools to control malaria are already in our hands. The breed of mosquito most responsible for spreading the disease in Africa -- the female anopheles -- feeds at night, so a simple bed net treated with insecticide is often all it takes to protect a mother and child.
If a child is bitten and contracts malaria, however, hope is not lost. Speedy diagnosis and inexpensive medicines, using a Chinese herb called Artemisia, can cure them before it becomes life-threatening. It costs only a dollar or two per dose. Similarly, pregnant women who take a drug called sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine can protect their unborn children from anemia, low birth weight, and death.
But there's a big difference between knowing how to control malaria and actually doing it. Too many people lack access to bed nets and treatments. That's where we all come in. It costs only $10 to buy a bed net, deliver it, and educate a family on proper use.
With programs in Africa and throughout the developing world, PSI is fighting malaria through our new global initiative, Five & Alive, which targets children under the age of 5 to prevent and treat malaria, provide safe drinking water, treat malnutrition and pneumonia.
Across America, people from all walks of life are coming together to fight this disease through a network called Malaria No More: Boys & Girls Clubs have begun raising money for bed nets; millions of grade school children are learning about the disease thanks to a new first-grade book and fifth-grade curriculum; and students on more than 50 college campuses -- including Emory, UCLA, and Harvard -- are raising awareness and funds through an innovative effort called Music to End Malaria.
Together, we can ensure that mothers in Africa no longer have to worry whether their children will reach the age of five. Together, we can give the gift of growing up.
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