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Local church helps with malaria prevention in Africa

Cyprian Obasi, of Woodbury, is on the Nets for Life team who said he got sick with malaria almost every month while growing up in Nigeria. (Riham Feshir/Woodbury Bulletin)

Growing up in Nigeria, Cyprian Obasi got sick with malaria almost every month. He would get high fevers, headaches, chills and pain all over.

There was medication to treat the symptoms, but he said the side effects were also sickening. If left untreated the disease can cause severe complications and eventually death.

"Ninety-nine percent of people bitten by mosquitoes will have malaria," the Woodbury resident said.

Lack of education and prevention of the disease as well as dismal supply of mosquito nets have also contributed to the higher rates of malaria cases in west African countries.

"They didn't know what to do about it," he said of the residents of Nigeria. "If I got it every month, (that means) it wasn't cured."

As a member of Christ Episcopal Church in Woodbury, Obasi and the rest of the congregation are part of a statewide effort to raise money to buy 364 mosquito nets this lent season.

Episcopal churches around Minnesota are collecting money for nearly 20,000 nets -- one for each member of the church. The nets will be distributed by the organization Nets for Life in 17 African countries.

"It really resonated with Christ church because we have a number of members who come from Africa who had experience with malaria themselves or people they know," said Jamie Mair, communication representative for the Nets for Life team.

Austin Ihiekwe, another member of the church and a Cottage Grove resident, said he's had malaria so many times growing up that he lost count.

In 2001, he took his son back to their home country of Nigeria for a visit. Prior to leaving Minnesota for the three-week trip, he was busy getting his son the medication and shots needed to avoid the disease.

He was so caught up in getting his son protected that he forgot about himself. The trip ended with him getting sick on the plane on the way back to Minnesota.

"You never forget the feeling," Ihiekwe said, adding, "My son was scared to death" after seeing him sweating, shivering and sick with a fever.

The 67-year-old said although the disease was common back in the 1960s before he moved to the United States, people still lacked the knowledge to prevent it.

"I don't think too many people were aware of the devastating effects," he said. "Not too many people were exposed to what we're exposed to now."

About 20,000 nets to African countries will help with the prevention efforts, Obasi said, because some families can't afford to protect themselves at night.

"A man with four or six kids will not be able to buy as many nets to take care of his family," Obasi said.

But what's also needed is educating children and adults with ways they can use to get out of the deadly insect's way when they hear it buzzing in their ears.

"To me, treating the illness is a little too late," Ihiekwe said, adding, "I think people have accepted the fact that malaria is there so you do what you can to prevent it."

Medication to treat malaria has severe side effects, including liver damage, Obasi said.

"If you're not killed by malaria, with time, you will not live long," Obasi said.

Every year, Christ church gets involved with a local international project. This year's worldwide mission happened to partner with Nets for Life and fall during lent season.

"Lent is a time of sacrifice for the Christian community, and I think it's also a time to remind us to look beyond our community and look into the broader world and see what needs are out there and to commit ourselves to helping with those problems," Mair said.

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.