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Fighting malaria through pop music

Multimedia: Senegalese singing sensation Youssou N'Dour encourages families to sleep under mosquito nets.

Senegalese health workers explain to mothers how to use, hang and maintain treated mosquito nets. A total of two million free nets were distributed nationwide recently in the hopes of covering every child under age five. (Anne Look/GlobalPost)

DAKAR, Senegal — “My woman went home. My woman went back. Brother, I’m just desperate,” croons Pape Diouf in the opening bars of the new single by fellow Senegalese pop star, Youssou N'Dour.

But, this is no ordinary ballad of heartbreak.

The song tells the story of a man whose girlfriend left him because he got malaria. As he seeks sympathy, members of the community tell him it's all his fault. He should have been sleeping under a treated mosquito net.

The song, whose title, "Xeex Sibburu," means "Fight Malaria," is the result of a collaboration between the Youssou N'Dour Foundation and the U.S.-based nonprofit organization Malaria No More. It is part of Malaria No More's mission to use “marketing muscle” from the private sector to end malaria deaths worldwide.

The nonprofit has already teamed up with celebrities like Sean Combs, Ashton Kutcher and David Beckham. If star power and effective marketing can sell digital cameras and tennis shoes, then why can't they also get people to donate mosquito nets, or in the case of “Xeex Sibburu,” sleep under one?

“Our strategy here in Senegal is to take some of those techniques and some of those resources and put them behind some of the best local marketers,” said Martin Edlund, the group's Senegal Project Director. “There's a strong case to be made that Youssou N'Dour is the best local marketer here in West Africa.”

No More Excuses

Though preventable and treatable, malaria kills one million people a year, 90 percent of them Africans. Malaria kills more African children than any other disease, one every 30 seconds.

Senegal’s health ministry and National Malaria Control Program are already waging an impressive offensive against the disease. Senegal reported a dramatic drop in cases earlier this year, largely due to rapid diagnostic testing and improved treatment. In some regions, no cases were reported in 2008.

Yet, many Senegalese still accept the disease as a fact of life, and it continues to be a leading cause of death and developmental problems in children.

“Hey, take it easy, remember that God’s will prevails,” the song’s protagonist says as people chide him.

“No, talk is cheap,” the woman responds.

“You’re teasing,” he says.

“No, I’m not,” she says. “You have not been careful. Didn’t you get a mosquito net? You, my boy, what this woman is saying is the absolute truth. Had you protected yourself, you would have been malaria free.”