ABUJA, Nigeria

The Sultan of Sokoto and the Archbishop of Abuja, along with other leaders of Nigeria’s Muslim and Christian faiths, have joined Nigerian government officials to launch an unprecedented effort to eliminate deaths from malaria throughout the country.

By the end of 2010, the religious leaders plan to train 300,000 imams, priests, pastors, and ministers to carry the malaria prevention message to cities, towns, and rural villages through sermons and other cooperative efforts. 

The effort was launched Dec. 9 at a press conference here led by Babatunde Osotimehin, Nigerian Minister of Health; Ray Chambers, United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Malaria; Onno Ruhl, World Bank Country Director; the Sultan of Sokoto; Catholic Archbishop Onaiyekan of Abuja; and the Methodist Prelate of Nigeria.

The interfaith campaign, called Faiths United for Health (FUH), is working in partnership with Nigerian leadership as it aims to deliver 63 million Long Lasting Insecticidal Mosquito Nets (LLINs) to 30 million households by the end of 2010. If successful, the campaign will boost utilization of LLINs from approximately 10 percent to 80 percent of Nigeria’s population.  

Chambers applauded the historic effort, saying, “Working together, Nigeria’s faith leaders have the credibility, influence, and reach to carry the message that ‘bed nets save lives’ to their nation’s most distant villages. Their efforts will help ensure that the next generation of Nigeria's children will have the strength and good health to pursue their hopes and dreams.”  

At the FUH launch, 100 top Nigerian faith leaders participated in prevention and education training.  Each member of this core group of 100 will train a cadre of faith leaders, and each person who receives the training will, in turn, pass it along to his peers, until a network of up to 300,000 faith leaders has been mobilized to spread the life-saving message that Nigeria can defeat malaria through the consistent use of bed nets.

“Nigeria’s faith community is united to fight a disease that kills children of all religions,” said the Sultan of Sokoto and Archbishop Onaiyekan. “Our congregations and our brothers and sisters in faith are coming together in an unprecedented way to support the government’s health programs, and our participation is the key to success against malaria.”

FUH is an outgrowth of the One World Against Malaria (OWAM) campaign, which was launched by the U.N. Special Envoy and the Center for Interfaith Action on Global Poverty (CIFA) to foster greater cooperation within the faith sector and between faith organizations and other players in the fight against malaria, which kills 300,000 Nigerians every year. 

President Barack Obama heralded the promising new interfaith model in a major address in Ghana earlier this year, saying, “Across Africa, we see examples of people tackling these problems. In Nigeria, an interfaith effort of Christians and Muslims has set an example of cooperation to confront malaria.” 

U.S. United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice announced significant new U.S. funding commitments for malaria at OWAM’s launch in April. 

Jean Duff, CIFA’s Executive Director, placed FUH in a larger context, saying, “The significance of Faiths United for Health goes well beyond better health and development in Nigeria.  It showcases Nigeria's interfaith action as a model for Muslim-Christian collaboration in the global fight against poverty and disease.”

There are an estimated 57 million cases of malaria in Nigeria each year, resulting in nearly 300,000 deaths — 85 percent of them children under the age of five. Because of the disease, Nigeria’s economy suffers a direct loss of an estimated $12 billion a year.