In honor of World Malaria Day, TakePart caught up with Erica Lichtenberger from Malaria No More, an organization that has distributed 2.7 million mosquito nets to families in 13 African countries. Lichtenberger, who recently returned from a trip to Ghana and Burkina Faso with Smash star and American Idol alum Katharine McPhee, spoke with us about her experiences in Africa and how international organizations are teaming up with locals to fight the disease, which still kills 655,000 people annually around the world.
TakePart: How did you get interested in this cause?
Erica Lichtenberger: After I graduated from college, I spent the summer in Tanzania teaching HIV/AIDs awareness classes to secondary schools and helping out physicians with surgeries; so that’s where I got the public health and nonprofit bug. I worked at a PR agency afterward, but I always thought about Africa and how I could get back there to help. That’s how I ended up working at Malaria No More.
When I began working at Malaria No More, a child died of malaria every 30 seconds, and now it’s every minute. While that’s still not good—we don’t want anyone dying of malaria—we’re making progress.
TakePart: Tell us about Ghana and Burkina Faso.
Erica Lichtenberger: I was there with Katharine McPhee, and our first stop was Accra, Ghana. We met with our partner USAID, President Obama’s malaria initiative, and also some local affiliates, and we went to a durbar—a ceremonial gathering of local village leaders, a kind of welcoming party where they do a kind of dance-off in front of you. When we showed up, there were 10 village chiefs from all these neighboring communities, everyone colorfully and beautifully dressed.
Afterward, the kids came and put on a skit about malaria, what can happen if you get it. Then there was a net demonstration, which showed the community what we were doing there and how they could protect themselves from malaria. We were also there to distribute nets.
Katharine loved it. She got up and danced with a lot of the folks, and they loved her—they actually recognized her from American Idol.
TakePart: Wow, really?
Erica Lichtenberger: Yeah, it’s amazing—they love that show. They remembered Taylor Hicks, her competition, everything.
TakePart: How was Burkina Faso?
Erica Lichtenberger: After Accra, we got on a plane and went there. Katharine built a school in Burkina Faso a few years back. She had never visited the school and had gotten an email from the principal saying that kids were missing class because of malaria; so we were there specifically to distribute nets to the school. Inside the compound, there was a maternity ward and an orphanage; so we made trips to each of those places and gave out nets. People were so thankful. It was overwhelming in such an amazing way.
TakePart: How long have you guys been giving away the nets?
Erica Lichtenberger: We have been around for five years, and we’ve kind of changed in those five years. We used to be really net focused, and while we’re still net focused, we’re also exapnding to treatment and to rapid diagnostic tests and other tools to help people either prevent malaria, or if they get malaria, make sure they don’t die from it.
TakePart: Have you been able to revisit places to see the positive changes?
Erica Lichtenberger: On my trip to Ghana, we ended up close to the same villages I had been to a couple of years ago. I actually recognized some of the people I had seen on that previous trip—they had come from the neighboring villages to the durbar! They recognized me and were grateful for the nets they had received since my last visit, which was a sign they were using them.
We have done before-and-after campaigns. We did a Twitter campaign with Ashton Kutcher to help two areas in Senegal get universal coverage, which basically means that everyone has their own mosquito net. People took pictures in the Twitter frame we gave them to say thank you back to the community, and we know they are all protected to this day.
TakePart: What are some other improvements you’ve seen?
Erica Lichtenberger: We’ve seen a 33 percent drop in malaria deaths, in general, which is great. When I began working at Malaria No More, a child died of malaria every 30 seconds, and now it’s every minute. While that’s still not good—we don’t want anyone dying of malaria—we’re making progress, and it’s thrilling for me to see that in my short time here.
TakePart: How can people get involved in the cause?
Erica Lichtenberger: The down and dirty way is to donate $10 to Malaria No More, which will buy a net that will save two children from malaria. So that’s a quick way that doesn’t cost a lot of money. But if someone’s looking to help without spending any money, we always love when people share a post or retweet us on Facebook or Twitter—helping raise awareness for the cause is equally important.
TakePart: Does Malaria No More take volunteers to Africa?
Erica Lichtenberger: At the moment we don’t, but we have a partnership with the Peace Corps; so we’re always working with young people and having them help us get stories from the ground and sharing them with our supporters in the U.S.
TakePart: Any other experiences in Africa you’d like to share?
Erica Lichtenberger: I was in Senegal with David Arquette last year, and we met with a father, El Ajadj, who had lost his young daughter to malaria a few years ago. Because of that, he was inspired to make sure that no one else in the village died from malaria. He started a nonprofit and got all the local women to actually go door-to-door to check and make sure everyone was using their nets—if they weren’t using them, they would get fined. That spread from village to village—I think 66 villages adopted his policies—and no one has died from malaria for the past few years.
TakePart: What can we do to celebrate World Malaria Day?
Erica Lichtenberger: Just try to talk about the issue with your friends and family for the day. If it can come up over dinner, then it’s a small victory for everyone.