NEWTOWN, Connecticut — The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the first time humanity has contended with dangerous communicable diseases. Smallpox ended 300 million lives in the 20th Century. Different strains of influenza surface every year and kill tens of thousands of people. HIV/AIDS is responsible for over 32.7 million deaths since the start of its outbreak. However, the world has come a long way since these times.
Smallpox was eradicated in 1977 due to an extremely effective vaccine and education that encouraged the population to inoculate themselves. Every year the annual flu shot prevents approximately five million illnesses and reduces the likelihood of severe illness by about 59%. And from 2009 to 2019, access to antiretroviral therapy to treat HIV/AIDS more than quadrupled from around 6 million people to about 25 million people.
Despite these public health successes, thousands of people still find themselves with severe illnesses from viruses every year. HIV continues to spread through rural villages in Sub-Saharan Africa. Malaria poses a serious risk to children and pregnant women in tropical climates and 60,000 people still die from the flu every year. Unfortunately, these risks are heavily concentrated in “ultra-poor” communities, as described in Bangladesh, Columbia and South Africa.
This is largely due to a lack of access to resources and a lack of awareness of the resources that exist, which is why over the past 20 years, many studies have been conducted examining the effects of integrated microfinance and health education interventions in ‘ultra poor’ communities.
IMAGE Program in South Africa
The most prevalent version of these programs is the Intervention with Microfinance for AIDS and Gender Equity (IMAGE) program. It provides financial services for income-generating activity (business loans) in conjunction with participatory training about the risk factors of HIV, gender and sexuality norms and the indicators of women’s empowerment. “Qualitative data suggest that these reductions in violence resulted from a range of responses that enabled women to challenge the acceptability of such violence, expect and receive better treatment from partners, leave violent relationships, give material and moral support to those experiencing abuse, mobilize new and existing community groups, and raise public awareness about the need to address both gender-based violence and HIV infection,” the study concluded.
Malaria Education in Ghana
Another study examined the effectiveness of Malaria education when delivered by rural banks in Ghana. Participants in this micro-financial intervention were more likely to know the risks of various malaria complications, especially those of pregnant women. Additionally, participants were more likely to own an insecticide-treated bed net or ITN, an item shown to help prevent the contraction of malaria. The study said, “Results indicate that, although significant barriers to malaria control remain, a malaria education program provided by microfinance institutions can effectively contribute to community and national malaria initiatives.”
What Can These Programs Achieve?
Many more programs integrating microfinance and health education exist and show similar results in places like Thailand, Malawi and Guatemala. These services potentially have the ability to kill many birds with one stone. When poverty and financial instability are addressed by providing real opportunities for growth, financial access to health services increases. Furthermore, with these programs, knowledge of risks increases, decreasing the prevalence of illness overall. This improves the quality of life, trust in formal healthcare services and community awareness of health issues.
COVID-19 presents many challenges and it disproportionately affects those who do not have the resources or education to deal with it. If these interventions effectively curb the spread of diseases like HIV and Malaria, interventions that combine microfinance and health education may be a simple way to get across information about the current pandemic.
– Anika Ledina