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I have been distracted all day by the email I read first thing this morning. A beautiful seven-year-old girl died suddenly in rural Niger on Saturday. She had malaria and sickle cell anemia. She was the daughter of a very dear friend of ours. As I shared the news with my husband and my eyes filled with tears, I was transported to memories of that remarkable country of Niger where we lived for most of the 1990s.

August is a dramatic month in Niger. The arrival of the heavy rains is greeted with gratitude, hope and anxiety – hope that the rains might be substantial enough to support a good growing season – but anxiety that the severe rainfall doesn’t cause too much flood damage nor bring life-threatening illness during this peak of the malaria season.

We first visited Niger 25 years ago when I was a recently graduated family physician conducting a malaria research project. A large part of my heart remains in that extraordinary land. Our own first-born child is buried in a stony field just across the road from where our friend’s daughter died. In our daughter’s case it was meningococcemia that took her life in 1991. Malaria, meningococcus and so many other common illnesses continue to threaten the lives of young children in Niger – where 14% of children will not live to see their 5th birthday. In August, the underlying social and ecological conditions of Niger combine with a spike in the incidence of malaria to create a seasonal parasitic minefield for children to navigate.

Our son Jacob, 2002

And yet, I loved raising children in Niger. In many ways it was a paradise for our kids. They spent their early years enjoying the natural surroundings – searching for chameleons and desert hedgehogs. They climbed into the guava trees to nestle in the undulating branches where they read books for hours. They learned from Nigeriens about community, ingenuity and generosity.

How can such a potential paradise for children be simultaneously such a risky place for a young person to live? I’m frustrated and ashamed to realize the slow rate of improvement in health outcomes for the people of Niger in the last 25 years. I have spent almost my whole adult life pondering how a concerned global citizen can join with others to support healthier living conditions in a country like Niger. The solutions remain elusive.

Some of the answers should come from improved social conditions – education, economy and public infrastructure. Others would suggest we need to wait for miracles in scientific discovery to combat these deadly diseases. Some of my most thoughtful colleagues have noted that the ingredient we lack most of all is moral imagination. Dr. Solomon Benatar states that:

“If lack of moral imagination were to be seen as one of the grand challenges for global health, resources and scholarly energy would surely be applied to promoting such imagination and to seeking innovative new approaches to improving global health. The quest for improved global health will be elusive if we continue to neglect the upstream forces that cause, sustain, and aggravate the poverty and misery that characterise the lives of almost half the world’s population.”

But beyond imagination, here’s what I think we can do:

  1. Know: Understand the global causes of poverty, malnutrition and high childhood mortality. Read about Niger today!
  2. Care: Awaken the compassionate of all Canadians to consider the needs of others by talking about what we learn.
  3. Act: Convince our national leaders to act on our behalf to contribute to better health for everyone on this planet. Advocate for our Canadian International Development Agency to make thoughtful investments in the infrastructure of low-income countries.

In 2012, it is not acceptable when a seven-year-old girl dies of a preventable and treatable disease. I am devastated to think of the grief of our friends. When it comes to the health of the world’s children, I am determined to know more fully, care more genuinely and act more effectively. Will you join me?

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