We were coming home from a musical festival in Gabon when a musician from my group felt unwell and was driven home to rest. No one detected that her malaise was a malaria infection. By the time Phumzile Ntuli was taken to the hospital in South Africa, she had developed cerebral malaria. To my greatest shock and dismay, she fell into a coma and died shortly after.
After Phumzile’s death back in 2004, my eyes opened to a daily tragedy of gigantic proportions: African children dying by the thousands from malaria; families spending all their disposable income on treatment; hospitals overcrowded with malaria patients; education disrupted by the recurrent illnesses of teachers and students; and pregnant women losing their lives or their babies to malaria-related complications. Malaria, I realised, was truly sucking the lifeblood out of Africa. I had to do something about it.
In 2005 I came across the Roll Back Malaria Partnership (RBM) - a global movement of advocates, experts, researchers, doctors, scientists, politicians, private sector CEOs, heads of multilateral organizations, all working together to deliver Africa and the world from malaria. For the past 8 years, I have been serving as a Goodwill Ambassador for the Roll Back Malaria Partnership and UNICEF-Africa, travelling the continent and the world to lend support to the fight against the three major killers of our time- malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS.
I have always been a singer with a mission. Growing up in South Africa during apartheid, I felt that singing for justice and equality helped create a change of consciousness that did, in turn, change reality. When apartheid was defeated, I found a new mission: to speak of the plight of those whose voices don’t carry far in our world and help reverse what I call a global apartheid in accessing health services.
Anyone can contract and die from malaria, like my friend did. Malaria’s most frequent victims, however, are those who cannot afford to ward it off, mostly poor women and children in Africa. It costs only a dollar to buy a full course of treatment for a child. But for those who live on less than $1.25 a day, even low-cost life-saving treatment remains tragically out of reach.
This is where, thankfully, international aid has come into the picture. Over the past decade, rapidly growing donor aid, channeled mainly through the Global Fund, has made a tangible difference in the lives of millions. Malaria mortality rates in Africa are down by one-third; over a million lives have been saved from malaria over the past decade, most of them among children and 8 African countries have cut their death rates by 75%. Progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS and TB has been just as astounding. 8 million people in low- and middle-income countries are currently receiving drugs to treat HIV/AIDS. In 2012 alone 700,000 AIDS related deaths were averted. 9.7 million cases of smear-positive TB have been detected and treated between 2002 and end 2012.
International aid has made countries’ quest for universal coverage seem possible. It has given a foundation to the lofty dream of equal access to health. Since 2002, the Global Fund has been a key catalyst for change in public health. It has helped transform what I once referred to as isolated pockets of hope into country-wide success stories across Africa.
Today, world leaders are meeting in Brussels to set the stage for the 2014-2016 replenishment of the Global Fund. To them I say: We shouldn’t repeat the mistake we made 30 years ago and put the brakes on when we should accelerate. African countries are at critical point in their fight against major disease and need more than ever a fully replenished Global Fund. If the resources that made their successes possible dry up, the gains of a decade of collective effort will be lost and the cost of putting out the flares of reemerging epidemics will likely far exceed the investment needed today.
To African leaders I say: it is time to make good on promises to invest in health. While 27 African countries have increased their domestic investment in health since 2001, only two have so far achieved the Abuja Declaration target.
International donors cannot be expected to lend a hand to Africa’s fight for health, if African governments do not truly commit to it too. Banks lend money against collateral. It is only fair that donor governments look at domestic financing as a sign of commitment and a guarantee that taxpayers’ hard-earned money is wisely invested.
Africa’s economies are faring well. Sub-saharan Africa is already home to six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies. Analysts say that growth in Africa has a good chance of outpacing that of Asia over the next 5 years. To reap the benefits of such growth and catalyze sustainable development, African leaders need to invest more in the health of its people - Africa’s most precious resource.