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Fighting malaria through pop music

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

Music is a powerful educational tool in Africa, where many are illiterate, and the song was set to a lively, mbalax rhythm and produced in Wolof, Serere and Pulaar, the three most common languages in Senegal.

“You need to pay attention to what the population listens to the most in order to touch them and raise public awareness,” singer-activist Youssou N'Dour told GlobalPost.  

“We have all had family or friends who have died from malaria,"said N'Dour. “I see all the problems that we experience here, and if I think I bring something to an issue, I do it.”

As the song hit airwaves, Senegal and its international partners launched a campaign to distribute two million treated mosquito nets nationwide. The goal of the week-long effort was to get every child under age five sleeping under a net.

The song was also distributed to radio stations and 1,300 health huts nationwide in the hopes of creating a viral, grassroots education effort.

“People love the song,” said Dr. Abdou Karim Diop, chief medical officer in Pikine, one of two Dakar suburbs targeted in the campaign. “The song is a welcome tool because it reinforces the distribution and awareness campaign we are doing.”

As health volunteers went door-to-door in Pikine, others rented an SUV and drove it through the neighborhoods with the song blaring from speakers mounted on top.

“The best opportunity for a humanitarian win in the world today”

Malaria is both a cause and consequence of poverty in Africa. It keeps children out of school, farmers out of fields and tourists out of malaria-endemic countries. The World Health Organization estimates malaria costs Africa $12 billion a year in health expenditures and lost productivity.

Yet, the marketing heavyweights who founded Malaria No More saw more than a devastating disease; they saw a good investment.

Malaria wasn’t eradicated in the United States until the 1950s, and the tools to make Africa malaria-free exist. Thanks to improved medicines, treated mosquito nets, and home spraying, countries like Ethiopia, Rwanda and Eritrea have cut malaria deaths in half. The island of Zanzibar have all but eliminated deaths.

“Our leadership came at [malaria], and really sees it, as the best opportunity for a humanitarian win in the world today,” Edlund said. “Our hope is that we can tick malaria off the list and then take some of these techniques and apply them to other challenges down the road.”

More GlobalPost dispatches about the fight against malaria:

The bug wars (the global fight against malaria)

More GlobalPost dispatches about Senegal:

Light and darkness on Goree Island

Senegalese women aim for political role

Gays under threat in Senegal