KALENE HILL, Zambia – Edwin could have been my son.
When I first met him I was on assignment in Zambia. So much about Edwin reminded me of my youngest son, Konstantin. They were both 4 years old, and they both had a double set of dimples that pocked their cheeks when they smiled. The simple green t-shirt that Edwin wore looked as if it could have come right out of Konstantin’s drawer. And they both lived near the equator, as I was living with my family in Indonesia at that time.
Despite the similarities, fate for these two boys could not be more different for a specific and tragic reason: Konstantin had access to hospitals, mosquito nets, and a car. Edwin did not.
Edwin lives in a remote area of Zambia near the border with Congo, one of the most deadly regions on earth. It’s not a war zone, but a climate zone that harbors some of the most vicious and ruthless killers on our planet: the anopheles, also known as malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
These killers inhabit a vast stretch of our planet, predominantly residing in warm, temporal climates. Their devastation zone illustrates a harsh reality for humanities neglected, and their target is primarily the poor. They are quite simply a perfect – and perfectly avoidable – killing machine.
For the better part of 25 years, I have been working as a photographer to cover global health in many of its tragic arcs. I have traced the devastating spread of AIDS in Asia and Africa, and the deep poverty and malnutrition that stunts growth and takes millions of children’s lives through preventable diseases. I have also chronicled heroic – and recently successful — efforts to lower the number of children who die before their fifth birthday.
One of the most vexing and preventable of all of these sicknesses that take the lives of children and adults alike is malaria.
In 2007 I visited some of the world’s most highly prone regions for contracting malaria: the Amazon basin in Peru, Kolkata in India, rural Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia.
Who would imagine that something as small and globally ubiquitous as a mosquito could bring on the hell and misery through which Edwin would journey? And the hardest part of all was that Edwin’s suffering should have been fairly easily prevented. The only things needed were mosquito nets and education on malaria prevention.
Though never experiencing malaria personally, I understood clearly that my risks were high while working on this project, potentially sending me into severe bouts of fever and pain that could lead quickly to brain damage or even death. Call it imprudent or just plain stupid, but I wanted to truly understand what it would be like to live in the world’s most malaria-infested regions. And I wanted to do that while being as connected as possible to the fellow human beings whom I was honored to visit, and who were suffering malaria’s wrath.
To accomplish this immersion, I chose not to take any medicine nor use bug spray, opting instead to only wear simple long-sleeve shirts and long pants and to sleep under a mosquito net. These simple and inexpensive defenses are in most cases accessible to the average person – despite deep poverty — in regions highly prone to malaria.
On Peru’s Iquitos-Nauta Highway, I was photographing under a waning moon along a new asphalt road that bored into recently lacerated ancient forests when I was swarmed by these miniature Draculas, desperate to suck through my skin. Amazingly, few penetrated my completely buttoned shirt. Even more fortuitous, those that did bite did not carry the proper protozoa, which is carried only by some female mosquitoes. Male mosquitoes have little passion for blood, while their mates depend on it.
In India, on the flooded streets of Kolkata during monsoon season, the tiny killers mobbed me once again, and again they were unable to penetrate the most basic long-sleeved clothing. In Kenya and then Tanzania, I found the same to be true. Only in Zambia did the reality of these killer anopheles truly become a challenge to avoid. Zambia has some of the highest recorded malaria cases on earth, and I learned quickly why: Mosquitoes were everywhere.
In a strategically located village stood the Kalene Mission Hospital in Kalene Hill. And it was there in a small, window-lit room that I first met Edwin. This hospital, run by nuns and volunteers, treats the men, women and children for all of their health needs in this exceptionally remote, landlocked part of Zambia.
The most sought-after treatment there is for those suffering from malaria. Disturbingly, the treatment is accessible only to those who are lucky enough to make it to Kalene Hill and to the hospital. One of the fortunate ones, Edwin, was carried in his mother’s arms from their home to the hospital, a five-hour walk.
There in a room lay the 4-year-old.
My son? Your son?
Edwin represented all of our sons and daughters.
Lost in a deep sleep-like trance, he received badly needed medicine from an IV in his arm. His mother, Maybel Kazhiña, and grandmother, Estridah Chimbimbii, rested, exhausted, by his side. Edwin was slipping into the most deadly state, which comes about when the parasite from the malaria-infected mosquito begins to enter the brain. That can cause cerebral damage and ultimately death. Edwin’s family was praying for him. They were verging on hopelessness.
But then, thanks to the efforts of doctors at the hospital, the medicine dripping into Edwin’s vein pulled the boy back from the edge. Moments later, his arm moved. His eyelids twitched open.
Edwin was going to live.
Astonishingly, this was the second time in his four short years that Edwin escaped death from malaria.
Just how many children are not as fortunate as Edwin to have made it to a hospital is unknown. However, each year, seven million children no different from Edwin or my son, Konstantin die before their fifth birthday. The majority of these deaths are from preventable diseases such as malaria, an abominable and shameful reality that must be reversed.
I returned from Zambia a few weeks later, and my family, as they have consistently done hundreds of times, met me at the airport. Sitting in the car was Konstantin, smiling with his signature dimples. Repeating a ritual I perform every time I come home, I hugged my three children.
But this time I thought about Edwin, who, thanks to access to medicine, also would be flashing his dimples with a radiant smile.
More from GlobalPost: Step by Step: The path to ending child mortality