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Part of the shock that first morning at a rural medical clinic in Ghana grew from my innocence and perhaps my substantial prejudices, the hefty files of caricature and stereotype most of us lug around quite unknowingly. I did not know that ordinary folks in some African countries dressed as brightly as that waiting room full of patients had that morning.
The immensity of color had me reeling. It was still early morning, but the clinic’s waiting room was so awash with color it almost made me dizzy, as if a whole carton of crayons had melted in a bright African sun. Imagine a couple dozen women, maybe more, within the walls of a room maybe twice the size of a classroom, each dressed brilliantly. Here and there sat a man much more plainly dressed, a grandpa maybe; but the brilliant colors of the women seemed almost blinding.
At St. Luke Hospital, Kasei, Ghana, sick people come early, and healthy people take their children. Amid the bright splashes of color, I had to remind myself why they were there.
But that reminder wasn’t particularly difficult because more than a few young moms, like this one, held children who seemed exhausted, sometimes almost limp. It was the end of the rainy season, a time of great blessing for rural people in Ghana, but also a time of great blessing to hoards of mosquitoes; and mosquitoes, in west Africa, are fighter pilots armed to strafe the world with malaria.
As colorful as it was that morning, the hospital waiting room was heavy laden with dark concerns. I didn’t hear this child’s specific prognosis, but you could hardly be wrong in assuming the little boy was there for malaria.
I’d been to Africa before, but not to a place like St. Luke, a refuge in a time of storm and sadness. I’d never been to a place where people in need come for medical services they simply might never get if it weren’t for this oasis.
Malaria is a mass murderer, a serial killer in Africa, as it has been for a millennia. But most of the patients here–men and woman and children–won’t be among its victims because established treatments can often be effective. St. Luke is going to win the vast majority of battles.
Still, 500,000 die from malaria each year, half of them African children. Half of that number, then again, are kids under the age of five years old. On Thursday, the World Health Organization announced what it told reporters was a historic development: the very first vaccine created and proven to actually prevent the disease.
Even in those regions where most people sleep under insecticide-treated bed nets, children can average six episodes a year. Introducing a vaccine into a community where the disease is that frequent a visitor will have an immense effect on the quality of life. Impossible as it may seem, what that vaccine may yield is a balm-in-Gilead miracle.
It’s next to impossible to imagine a news story as huge as the one that broke on Wednesday when the World Health Organization announced that a vaccine for malaria has been created, tested, and approved for general use in places where this dreaded childhood disease still devastates communities.
Garrison Keillor long ago said in an interview that he was convinced the world would be a far better place if each of one of us took the time in the morning to thank the Lord for something, anything. I spent some years of my life trying to do that–let me tell you it’s not always as easy as you might think.
But today it is. I am thankful to God for the impossible gift of health and life that may well flow from a striking research breakthrough. May malaria, even as we speak, begin to die its own silent death.