09/16/2016 05:20 EDT | Updated 09/16/2016 05:22 EDT

I Want My Son To Grow Up In A World Free Of Deadly Epidemics

This time of year, parents are acutely aware of the complexities of raising a child. But imagine if another variable -- a potentially deadly disease -- could affect your child at any moment. For millions of people around the world, uncertainty is a daily reality.

Earlier this month, millions of students around the world -- including my son -- headed back to school for a fresh year of learning and growth. Families acclimatized to routines new and old - packing lunches, arranging drop-offs and pick-ups, picking clothes or pressing uniforms, and making sure that everyone gets to school or work on time.

This time of year, parents are acutely aware of the complexities of raising a child. But imagine if another variable -- a potentially deadly disease -- could affect your child at any moment. For millions of people around the world, uncertainty is a daily reality as families face the ongoing threat of mosquito-borne malaria.

A mother and son under a mosquito net in their home in Burkina Faso. (Photo: Plan International/Nyani Quarmyne)

Malaria is spread by the bite of an infected mosquito. Its initial symptoms present much like the flu, though some strains can be severe, capable of causing permanent disability or even death. In recent years, we've made tremendous progress in the fight against this epidemic: between 2000 and 2015, we have witnessed a 60 per cent drop in malaria deaths. Much of this is thanks to the Global Fund, a partnership of governments, NGOs, the private sector and citizens around the world who are working together to accelerate the end of the malaria epidemic, as well as tuberculosis and AIDS.

Plan International has been partnering with the Global Fund since 2004, during which time we have been able to educate over 30 million people about malaria prevention, distribute 36 million lifesaving bed nets, refer 25,000 tuberculosis cases, and provide 32,000 members of vulnerable communities with HIV testing, prevention, and support services.

People around the world can -- and should -- take pride in these "good news" stories. However, we must not lose momentum. We've come a long way, but these hard fought victories could be lost if we do not press forward with the same vigour that has brought us to this point. We find ourselves at an amazing moment in history: the end of these three deadly epidemics is finally in sight.

But what will it take for us to close this gap for good? At Plan International Canada, we know that reaching the finish line depends on reaching the most vulnerable -- especially girls and women, who are disproportionately affected by malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS. All three of these epidemics are also major gender issues. For example, tuberculosis kills more women globally than any other single infectious disease, despite the fact that it is both curable and preventable. In some cases, this is because male family members are unwilling to pay for their treatment. The same is often true of women suffering from malaria.

A woman waiting for treatment for her son's malaria at a health clinic in Liberia. (Photo: Plan International/Vincent Tremeau)

We could try to address these issues by simply reaching out to the people we know to be the most vulnerable. We could improve access to health care facilities for women, or ensure that funding is available for their care. These techniques would be effective, and are certainly a part of the solution. But in order to create and sustain the kind of progress that we need in order to actually end these epidemics, it's going to take more.

Specifically, we need to challenge the social and cultural norms that make vulnerable groups vulnerable in the first place. This means working with everyone -- women, men, boys, girls and people of other gender identities -- to recognize and deconstruct the ways in which traditional gender stereotypes can be harmful for everyone involved.

For instance, in order to fully address women's struggles to access malaria and tuberculosis treatments, all people must recognize that women's lives are valuable and important. Without this shift toward promoting and protecting our collective human rights, the end of these epidemics will continue to elude us.

The Global Fund's Fifth Annual Replenishment Conference is taking place September 16 and 17 in Montreal, bringing together organizations from around the world to discuss next steps in our fight to accelerate the end of the malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS epidemics. The conference is also raising awareness among Canadians of the vital work ahead of us.

I know that many young people across the country are already engaged in their own efforts to raise awareness and funds through programs like Plan International Canada's Spread the Net Student Challenge, which supports programs combating malaria in Africa. I would encourage all Canadians to follow their lead, and learn more about the innovative ways that we can collectively raise awareness and support this important work.

When we recognize gender equality as an important key to health, these girls in Liberia, and their families, face a brighter, healthier future. (Plan International/Vincent Tremeau)

I want my son to grow up in a world where he and his peers can talk about the malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS epidemics in the past tense. When the next generation of parents around the world sends their kids off to school, I want them to be able to focus on their child's education -- not on a deadly disease.

Our planet is currently home to the largest youth population that it has ever seen, and they stand to inherit a host of big issues, including climate change, an uncertain economy and ongoing refugee crises. Let's give them one less issue to wrestle with. Together, we can help to pave an easier path and leave a positive legacy for young people. Let's end the malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS epidemics. For good.

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