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Nicholas Kristof: Connect to a cause

Written by Rebecca Cecala, Smart Talk Producer | Apr 27, 2015 1:50 PM
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World Malaria Day Reminder to Connect to a Cause

By Rebecca Cecala, Smart Talk producer

A 24-hour international news cycle of stories filled with disease and disaster can leave people feeling helpless rather than inspired. During a recent visit to Elizabethtown College to deliver the annual Ware Lecture on Peacemaking, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof emphasized that many problems associated with poverty and social justice actually have very practical solutions that anyone can contribute to, whether at home or abroad.

In fact, even after reporting on injustices and suffering all over the world, Kristof observes that people are "hard-wired" with empathy and feel driven to help others in need. The trick is to realize that we're more likely to feel empowered to help someone when they're right in front of us: "it's a little harder when a child is drowning half a world away."

Kristof's latest book with his wife Sheryl WuDunn, A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, presents the current data for the most effective ways to help those in need, whether they live in your neighborhood or thousands of miles away. Children are an important focus of the book, as research has found that many of the problems adults face can be alleviated by access to preventative strategies when they're young.

For children in 97 countries one of the greatest dangers today is not drowning, but becoming infected with the mosquito-borne parasite that causes malaria. During a recent two-week period in Zimbabwe alone, 10,000 cases of malaria were treated in individuals under the age of five. Malaria produces flu-like symptoms and, if left untreated, can cause death. According to the World Health Organization, 3.3 billion people are at risk of being infected with malaria worldwide.

Last Saturday was World Malaria Day, and malaria is one example that Kristof and WuDunn provide of a problem that disproportionately impacts children but has simple and cost-effective solutions. Of 584,000 malaria-related deaths in 2013, an estimated 437,000 were children in Africa. These figures are sobering when one considers that new measures of prevention and treatment caused the mortality rate of malaria to fall 47% between 2000 and 2013.

Following Kristof's lead, though, the dramatic decrease in mortality suggests that supporting these preventions and treatments for malaria is a huge opportunity to make a difference in people's lives. Simple things like free bed nets to protect people from mosquitoes while they sleep have been shown to be inexpensive and effective ways to save thousands of children's lives.

Kristof and WuDunn emphasize that the future of charitable organizations will continue to utilize randomized trials and data analysis to make sure that the methods used by organizations such as the Against Malaria Foundation for prevention and treatment of diseases like malaria are the most effective ones possible.

One net costs $3 and lasts 3-4 years. Making a difference in the life of a child is sometimes easier than we expect. In the case of malaria, a disease that threatens millions is likely, according to Kristof and WuDunn, "to be eliminated as (a) public health threat" over the next few decades.

Asked at the press conference prior to his talk at Elizabethtown College why people should help others in need, Kristof replied, "It sounds so hokey to say it, but I really think that there is something rewarding, and fulfilling, and meaningful about connecting to a cause larger than oneself." The upcoming World Malaria Day is a reminder that malaria is only one example among many that can potentially be solved by the numerous, small donations of time and money by individuals who want to help.

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