Last week during the UN General Assembly, United to Beat Malaria brought together Africa and US-based malaria advocates to share their experiences and build their advocacy skills. These advocates came to New York City from all over the world – Cameroon, Wyoming, Tanzania, Ohio, UAE, to name a few – to lend their voices to Global Fund advocacy efforts, in the lead-up to the vitally important Global Fund Replenishment pledging conference (here’s the full recap of the conference). They also came to make connections with advocates from around the world. Our workshop created a space for advocates to learn from each other and share their inspiring stories. After the workshop, three advocates – Krystal Birungi, Renée Pérez, and Jenna Broom – sat down for a captivating conversation about their unique origins and experiences as malaria advocates. We captured that conversation below. Also, check out the highlights from the workshop (see video below).
Krystal Birungi is a medical entomologist from Uganda working for Target Malaria, an NGO that is developing and sharing novel genetic technologies to help control malaria in Africa. A malaria survivor, Ms. Birungi has shared her story numerous times about the impact of the Global Fund on her life as a speaker for the Global Fund Advocates Network.
Renée Pérez has been a Beat Malaria Champion since 2017 and has met regularly with her Congressional offices to help strengthen US support of vital malaria programs. A native of Venezuela, Ms. Perez holds a double BA in political science and economics from the University of South Florida and is currently pursuing a Master’s of Global Affairs from the University of Notre Dame.
Jenna Broom is a Springfield IL native and a Beat Malaria Champion who joined our campaign by way of the Springfield chapter of Junior Chamber International (JCI), for which she previously served as President. Our campaign has partnered with JCI for many years, mobilizing Jaycees across the country and around the world to join the movement to beat malaria.
JENNA: How would you say that malaria has impacted you, your family, your loved ones, and your community?
KRYSTAL: I would say it’s still impacting my loved ones, my family and my community. I mean, growing up, it’s something that we’re always afraid was going to kill you because it’s just everywhere. You can’t avoid it. And every time you get it you’re worried whether or not this time you’ll make it. And, you know, as a child, I feel like it might even have been worse for my mother, because I can’t imagine today what it would feel like if my children over and over again almost died of this disease I just couldn’t keep away from them. You know, and that is something that the entire community has to deal with. It’s something that they have to put resources towards instead of worrying about sending their children to school. It is really a problem we have to get rid of.
KRYSTAL: So how did you guys learn about malaria? What drove you to get involved?
JENNA: So for me, I think it’s always one of the things like we knew about, right? … But I didn’t really get involved until I started advocating with Nothing But Nets – and now United to Beat Malaria – with the Jaycees. And so I kind of started doing it, just wanting to be an advocate to learn how to do the government work. But I stick around because like I’ve learned that this isn’t just another kind of – not that other causes are important, but this is a cause that has an endgame, that’s achievable. So I stick with it because it’s something that I know I can see to the end. And so that’s why … I’m so passionate about it.
RENEE: Thank you for sharing. So for me, when I was born in Caracas in Venezuela in 1997, the country had been certified malaria free by the World Health Organization for decades. And by the time I went to college in 2015, malaria had seen a massive resurgence in Venezuela. And also like you Jenna, I always know that malaria existed, but when I learned about this resurgence in my home country, particularly how it was affecting indigenous communities who are already the most vulnerable, it just felt really important for me to use my position as somebody here in the United States to advocate for that cause.
RENEE: So Krystal, you’re a scientist. Could you tell us a bit about the importance of having Africa-based scientists and researchers dedicated to the fight against malaria?
KRYSTAL: Yes, absolutely. So I’m an entomologist. I work with Target Malaria, an [NGO] research consortium that is developing gene drive technology for malaria mosquito control. And whenever you’re looking at new technologies, even those that are not new, it’s really important to have the people most affected by them as part of their development. We need to take away the mentality that, you know, we have all these solutions that can only be created by people outside those facing the problem and then, you know, just delivered to the people that actually have the issue. And also Africa as a whole, humongous resource that no one is using. So I think it’s really important for the organizations that are actually looking at ending malaria to involve the people most affected because we are the most motivated to end it.
KRYSTAL: So with all the social issues and COVID 19 and politics going on in the U.S., how have you guys kept your politicians really engaged in the fight against malaria?
RENEE: I think the most important thing is knowing your community. And that might sound kind of obvious, but I think here in the U.S., most of us could be better about knowing who we’re in community with. And the reason why that’s important in advocating for malaria is because it’s not an everyday problem here in the U.S. And so you need to understand what is an everyday concern or something that people in your community take pride in, what do they care about and what are the issues that they face?
And once you know those things, that is how you can draw the connection to malaria, not just for the members of your community, but also to members of Congress, because ultimately members of Congress care about what your community cares about. And so you bring these stories to them of your community and see how your community has a connection to malaria, and that is what’s going to be most effective. So, for example, if you live in a neighborhood that has a high Nigerian population, um, you know, Nigeria has the most malaria cases in the world. So that’s a direct connection that you can draw on.
JENNA: You made that great point, that direct connection. As terrible as COVID-19 was, it was kind of this silver lining in a way for advocacy, because it really revealed a lot of those networks and systems that already existed because of The Global Fund and things that PMI [The US President’s Malaria Initiative] do. Although it was hard and there were some challenges, we were able to use those preexisting networks, those community health workers, to really get into the communities, test for fevers and really get out there with more COVID 19 protections and medications and treatments and things like that.
And then I also think, you know, and I pointed this out actually to a friend … we’re still making progress despite, you know, COVID 19, despite all of the issues in past years. El Salvador was still declared malaria-free in 2021. We still got it done. She was shocked. She had no idea. And so she was actually more interested. And we got more deep into that conversation. And she’s from a state that’s very rural. So she’s like, we have all our own problems. But it brought back to her her understanding of, oh my gosh, it’s something that is moving forward and it’s getting solved. So it was actually a good way to turn and point out the good things that we do with The Global Fund and PMI.
RENEE: So when you envision a malaria free world, what does that look like for you? What does that mean for you or your family?
KRYSTAL: A malaria free world would mean no more preventable deaths of children under the age of five. It would mean people are no longer dying of a disease we know how to prevent, we know how to cure. It means security in knowing that, you know, if I got pregnant or if a mother gets pregnant, then I don’t have to worry that I will get this disease that will cause me to have a miscarriage rather than have to have my child that I kind of have family to hide them away from the world so they don’t die from this disease that we already know how to prevent and cure. A malaria-free world would mean everything.
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