The universal morality of fighting malaria

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Every 60 seconds a child dies from malaria, a preventable and treatable disease that is transmitted by the bite of a single mosquito. Malaria causes roughly 600,000 deaths each year, mostly children under the age of 5 in sub-Saharan Africa. However, malaria is not a problem that is particular to sub-Saharan Africa—half of the world’s population is at risk of contracting malaria, making this truly a universal problem and placing the responsibility to eradicate the disease on all of us. Our concern for humanity must not know national borders. We must universalize our Jewish values of caring for those who are ill, no matter where they may live.

In the mid-1900s, malaria was prevalent in the United States. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control was first established in 1946 with the particular purpose of preventing malaria from spreading across our country. While we have fortunately been able to eradicate malaria in the United States and the CDC has expanded its work to address other health concerns, the effects of malaria worldwide continue to be devastating. The 200 million annual cases of malaria keep kids out of school, parents out of work, discourage tourism, and cost $12 billion per year in direct losses and lost productivity.


April 25th marked World Malaria Day, a day when advocates around the globe raise awareness and take action to end malaria. As partners of Nothing but Nets, a global grassroots campaign to fight malaria, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Religious Action Center are proud to be a part of the global effort to combat malaria. The Reform Movement has educated thousands of people about the threat of malaria and our ability to combat it, provided programs and resources to our 900 congregations, and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to send insecticide treated bed-nets to people in need in sub-Saharan Africa. We have also sent thousands of letters to Congress and participated in dozens of congressional meetings to advocate for funding of the President’s Malaria Initiative and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which, among other achievements, have collectively sent more than 500 million bed nets to vulnerable populations.

As Jews, we find meaning in both the particular and the universal. For example, Passover tells the story of our people’s exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery, but every spring we retell our own history while bearing in mind those around the world who still are not free. The fight against malaria, and our partnership with Nothing but Nets, provides similar opportunities. We can take a particular and personal life cycle event, like a bar mitzvah, and turn it into something broader and more universal. B’nai mitzvah students across the country have already begun to do this by planning basketball tournaments to raise money or hosting booths at their synagogue’s Purim carnival, or elsewhere, to raise awareness as their b’nai mitzvah service projects. These opportunities to talk about global health and international development connect us with our prophetic tradition.

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In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Tarfon taught that “it is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” At this moment in history, when we are capable of eradicating malaria in our generation, we know that we are standing on the shoulders of the champions who have come before us. While they were unable to complete the task, they worked tirelessly to make progress and save lives from malaria. We must also join this effort and do our part in the fight against malaria. Knowing that the end of this deadly disease is possible, and seeing the incredible progress that has already been made, should only further motivate us to complete this task.

I hope that we will all commit to progress on this issue, whether we send letters to our senators and representatives encouraging them to support funding to stop malaria, donate on our birthdays to raise money for bed nets or run programs in communities to raise awareness. I hope that you join together with your friends and family to do what you can to help others because at the end of the day, our continued commitment to those most vulnerable is required to achieve a world of justice.


Isaac Nuell is the manager of congregational social action at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the social action arm of the Reform Jewish Movement.

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