For a comedian, Rick Mercer has a serious message: Every 30 seconds a child in Africa dies from malaria.

“If there are bed nets, the children stay alive,” Mercer told students at Simon Fraser University Thursday afternoon.

“The men are healthy, the women are healthy, and they can work and they can farm and the children can go to school.”

Mercer is the co-founder (with former MP Belinda Stronach) of Spread the Net, a charity that aims to fight mosquito-spread malaria, a leading cause of death for African children under five.

Spread the Net, he said, focuses on a “simple, tangible solution.” It purchases bed nets with mosquito repellant at $10 a pop for children in Rwanda and Liberia.

At SFU, Mercer received a rock-star welcome from students, complete with an acrobatic cheer team and school mascot, as he launched his third annual Spread the Net student challenge.

In the past two years, students have raised more than $650,000 for the charity, enough to purchase 65,000 mosquito nets.

Later, on a dare, he stuck his arm into a box of blood-sucking mosquitoes. He pulled his arm out after about a minute and was scratching it as he signed autographs and posed for photos with students.

“I’ve got a few itchy spots for sure,” he said. “If I had known, I would have brought my Deep Woods Off.”

The student challenge pits SFU students against an eastern school to see which can raise the most money. The winner will be featured on an upcoming episode of the Rick Mercer Report.

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