Marcy Erskine begins her day knowing she has the chance to help save thousands of lives. Through her work with the Canadian Red Cross, Erskine has helped to distribute millions of mosquito nets across Africa. It’s her role in the fight against the spread of malaria, which is the leading cause of death for African children under the age of five. Since there’s no vaccine, prevention is the best medicine.
Erskine, BA ’95, is at the forefront of distributing long-lasting, insecticide-treated mosquito nets in dusty African villages. She took her first trip to the continent as an adventure. She essentially never left.
“Part of the reason I stayed is that there is always something new to learn, to experience, to laugh at, to be frustrated with, to cry about, whatever,” she says. “Some people find that in their daily lives without ever traveling about, but I guess I found learning about the so-called ‘other side’ more interesting than what I could have been doing at home.”
Her dedication to the cause has earned her a promotion in the international Red Cross network. In recent weeks, she has been put in charge of mass mosquito net distribution worldwide for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
At about $7 each, mosquito nets have been a huge success, protecting young children under five and expectant mothers from a mosquito’s potentially deadly bite. The Canadian Red Cross Malaria Program, funded primarily by the federal Canadian International Development Agency, is adding another $20-million into the program over the next two years. Since 2004, CIDA has given $46-million to the Red Cross’s African mosquito net cause, and the Canadian Red Cross has distributed five million nets.
Erskine is essentially a team of one, flying to where she’s needed for a few days, and then hopping on a plane for her next destination. It’s a routine of long days of meetings, negotiations with governments and health authorities, and trouble-shooting.
Her work has taken her all over the African continent since she joined the Canadian Red Cross in 2004. This fall alone she will visit Nigeria, Togo, Mali, Liberia, DR Congo, along with organizational meetings in Switzerland. She collects so many stamps in her passport that she has to renew it annually for lack of room. She was in Ottawa in June doing just that. “I do 48 pages a year,” Erskine says, a number that even impresses the officials who re-issue her passport.
After getting her scholastic start at UVic, with an undergraduate degree in anthropology and sociology, she went to the University of Toronto for her doctorate and related field research that introduced her to Malawi and the African continent.
Those who knew her when she was growing up in small-town Ontario might well be surprised by Erskine’s calling. As a teenager she was a troublemaker, not a problem solver.
“I was a little hell-raiser,” Erskine says in typically blunt style before adding, “you can turn your life around and do something different.”
Erskine utters the latter statement so matter-of-factly that she makes it sound like it’s an every-day thing to spend your life helping people on an impoverished, famine-prone, disease- and war-ravaged continent.
In her first African assignments, she witnessed enough pain and death to last a lifetime. One young boy, to whom she had formed a close bond, died because of a lack of access to the health services that Canadians might take for granted. “The whole reason [for his death] was there was one dialysis machine in the whole bloody country and it was six hours from where they lived and they could never access it. That kind of destroyed me, to be honest.”
Then there’s malaria. According to the Red Cross, an African child dies of the disease every 30 seconds, every year one million people—mostly children and pregnant women in sub-Saharan Africa—succumb to it, while more than 350 million are infected. Nigeria alone needs about 54 million mosquito nets to help stave off the affliction. “If you don’t cover Nigeria, you don’t cover malaria,” she says. “Twenty-five per cent of the African malaria burden is in Nigeria, which is 150 million people.”
Properly used and cared for, a bed net can last three to five years. “Nine months after distribution, we go back in the rainy season and we look at coverage and retention and we know that 95 per cent of households that have received the nets still have them,” Erskine says. “The impact is pretty damn good.”
Erskine adds that while nets are important, they can be packaged to improve overall child survival. In Mali last year, nets were part of an integrated child health campaign that included vaccinations for measles and polio, administration of vitamin A to strengthen immune systems, and treatment for worms.
Now a veteran of aid work, Erskine’s experiences have provided a perspective on the differences between Africa and Canada—and the resilience to not be bothered by them. Not like she used to be, anyway. “In Africa, people have bigger problems in terms of living than people in Canada will ever have. But they are always happy there. That’s their context, right? They suffer and they make it work and smile and they get through it. [In Canada], people have different problems. And some people cope with them better than others. I think they suffer better than we do.”