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I Don't Want Children to Suffer From Malaria Like I Did

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In Rwanda, Sandrine has a better chance of avoiding malaria-spreading mosquitoes, now that she has clean water close to home and can avoid the stagnant pond where the insects breed. Photo/World Vision

When I was 10 years old, I got malaria. My family and I were living in Senegal, where my parents were working at the time. I was on a much-anticipated break from school, a time when we got to visit our favourite vacation spot outside the city.

The fever came on quickly and with force, racking my small body with migraine, nausea and muscle aches like a flu on steroids. My sister Emma, eight years old at the time, fell ill with the same sickness within hours of me. In my fever-addled memory I have no recollection of her being sick right beside me.

The malaria washed over me in cycles. In the morning I would get a short reprieve, managing to swallow a few bites of eggs and bread. But by noon, I was splayed on a chair by the pool, my head about to explode, as nauseated as if I was on a boat in a stormy sea.

Long days ahead

My parents, dealing with two sick children and a new baby, called our family doctor right away. He told them that we likely had malaria. The medicine to treat it cost us nothing -- because we were guests, the hotel staff gave it to us for free. The medicine would break our fevers within about 24 hours, but until then we had one rough time ahead of us.

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Neema in Kenya is 10, the same age I was when I got malaria. Before World Vision drilled a borehole in her village, Neema fetched water every day from this nearby swamp. I only endured malaria once, but it's a frequent reality for many children in Africa. Photo/World Vision

By six p.m. on the first day, I had thrown up so many times that I felt delirious with exhaustion. But after having emptied my stomach of all nutrients, I also felt ravenous. My mother encouraged me to eat things that wouldn't hurt my stomach, so I tentatively tried some mashed potatoes from the buffet. Then I fell into bed in our little hut-style cabin and slept. The next day my sister and I felt much better, and the next we were almost ourselves again as the treatment took its course.

Being sick as a child feels like a punishment. I remember my head hurting so bad I couldn't even open my eyes to read The Babysitter's Club, my favourite book series at the time. All I could do was lay on the bed bored and in agony.

How malaria starts

My sister and I likely got malaria when we were playing outside after dark, oblivious to the infected mosquitoes latching onto our exposed skin. As much as our parents tried to protect us with bug spray, long sleeves and light-coloured clothing (mosquitoes are attracted to dark hues), sometimes there was no escaping the insistent insects. Emma and I just happened to get bitten by the wrong mosquitoes.

Many children in the developing world aren't just vulnerable during playtime. For these kids, there is little time for play. Instead, it is while making the frequent journey to fetch the most basic necessity for their family -- water - that they are infected.

Mosquitoes breed in stagnant water. In rural neighbourhoods, they thrive in ponds. In urban centres, they swarm the large open barrels where families with no access to running water have no choice but to store the precious resource. In all cases, stagnant water holds the deadly potential to help spread mosquito-borne diseases like malaria, and the notorious Zika virus.

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Water brings life, but it can also bring illness like malaria, especially when children fetch water from a stagnant pond or swamp. Photo/World Vision

For the families World Vision partners with, prevention is key. Many of the solutions are very simple ones. Families need a source of clean, running water, so they can avoid spending time around places where water is stagnant. They also need mosquito nets to sleep under at night time. These two measures alone go a long way toward lowering the chances of children suffering like my sister and I did.

A preventable curse

Today, on World Malaria Day, I remember my brief battle with the deadly illness with a strange kind of gratitude. I'm not thankful for what I went through, because it's something no child should have to endure. But I'm grateful for parents who recognized the illness and acted quickly. I'm grateful that I had easy access to the life-saving medicine that soon had me back to normal. I'm grateful that I was one of the lucky ones.

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This hospital in South Sudan cares for a lot of malaria patients, many of them babies and young children. "The biggest disease here is malaria," says Dr. Deciman Ring. Photo/World Vision

Last year alone, 438,000 people weren't so lucky. That's how many people in 2015 died of the disease that took over my vacation in 1997. Although that rate has fallen 60 per cent since 2000, we still have a ways to go before vulnerable children are safe from the disease. Malaria still threatens almost half the world.

A disproportionate number of those people contract malaria in Sub-Saharan Africa, which includes Senegal. In 2015, 89 per cent of the 214 million malaria cases and 91 per cent of all malaria deaths worldwide occurred in the region. Although, in quite a few countries, mosquito nets and medicine are free, in many areas access to those resources is limited.

Children most vulnerable

Recognizing malaria for what it is can be half the battle for parents. My parents recognized it, and gave me the disgusting, but vital medicine that saved my life. Without it, many children in my adopted home country succumb to the illness.

As a 10-year-old, my body worked together with the medicine and fought off the disease. But children under five are much more at risk -- they account for 70 per cent of all malaria deaths. More than 300,000 children died last year from an illness that's preventable with things as simple as clean water sources. Let's make sure that kids don't have to fight off a disease that racks their bodies with fever, pain and nausea. Let's stop malaria before it bites.

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In Cambodia, Yat is drinking water from a system supported by World Vision. The local chief says the incidence of malaria in the village has dropped. Photo/World Vision