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Judd: How a $10 net can stop a killer

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 & Aliveexternal link 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 Video)

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 & Aliveexternal link, 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 Moreexternal link: 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.

What is your take on this commentary? E-mail us

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the writer. This is part of an occasional series of commentaries on that offers a broad range of perspectives, thoughts and points of view.

Your responses asked readers for their thoughts on this commentary. Below you will find a small selection of these e-mails, some of which have been edited for length and spelling:

Michael Stout, Chicago, Illinois
I was grateful for the article by Ashley Judd. Honest, smart, straight from the heart. A huge thought in a world that could use more simple solutions to solve its complex problems.

Kirk S., Dublin, California
For the net part of the issue. Instead of spending money to buy and deliver nets, the focus should be to build shops locally where they can manufacture the nets themselves. The raised money can get them started and eventually they'll be self-sufficient in taking care of them selves. I know it's easier said than done. But they need to depend on themselves. It's important. That old Chinese proverb comes to mind... "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime."

Sherrill Howell, Lake Mary, Florida
I thought this was a very good commentary. The only thing that bothers me is I would give $100 or 10 nets if I knew for sure that they were being given to the children and their mothers and fathers not someone else stealing the money or the nets. It is most unfortunate but assurance just doesn't cut it anymore in this world and I feel so sorry about that situation.

Arlene Corvelli, Dumont, New Jersey
I think this was a well-written article by Ms. Judd. And as bad as I feel for the children in third world countries, there are not enough people concerned about the children of OUR country. I'd like to see a celebrity use their money and energy to get homeless and sick children more of the help they need. If we can't take care of our own, how can we possibly take care of other countries' problems? Help starts at home.

Thomas Greene, Severn, Maryland
Saw your $10 to save a life article. Somehow it forgot to mention that when DDT was banned in the early 1970s Africa suffered a resurgence of malaria that has since cost the lives of tens of millions of children. But even though the World Health Organization has finally relented and now approves of some DDT use, you can't educate the public about that, can you?

Catherine Francois, De Pere, Wisconsin
Thank you for this article. I had no idea of the seriousness and severity of malaria; particularly, that it contributed to the deaths of so many children. Because of your article and the information that I now have, I will be making a donation to purchase a bed net. I know it is a small donation, but if everyone purchased one net it would make a significant difference in the lives of young African children. Thank you again.

Nell King, Lake Jackson, Texas
Is it really as simple as that? I know little about malaria and even less about its treatment and prevention. But, if it really is that simple, then let me know how to contribute. My children and grandchildren will never know the living conditions described by those at risk for this disease, and I would like to know that I could help protect at least a few other precious lives in this world.

Erin B., Baltimore, Maryland
Thank you for writing this article to increase public awareness of the problem of Malaria. As a student at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, we hear about programs for malaria all the time, but it can easily become an invisible disease to the public since it is no longer a problems here. I appreciate that the article included a multifaceted approach to malaria, nets, drugs, and hopefully a vaccine someday. No one change will cure Africa of malaria, but a well rounded effort can decrease the impact and give many children a chance at life that would otherwise be lost.

Ashley Judd

Ashley Judd argues that the scourge of malaria could be mitigated by some inexpensive remedies.

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