Laura Bush to open White House summit on malaria

John Donnelly | 13 Dec 2006
Boston Globe

First Lady Laura Bush will open a White House summit on malaria Thursday in hopes that global partners and ordinary Americans, including schoolchildren, will work together to eliminate the scourge, which kills roughly 1 million people mostly in Africa.

In an exclusive interview with the Globe yesterday, the First Lady also revealed that the health of African mothers and children has become so personal that a group of HIV-positive mothers in South Africa refer to her as ``Grand Mama Bush.'' And their connection through the universal bond of motherhood took on an added dimension, she said, when her daughter witnessed the deaths of AIDS-ravaged babies while volunteering in a South African hospital last year.

``The idea ... that your children could have a chronic disease that they could die from, that they couldn't live through childhood, is what every mother worldwide fears,'' Mrs. Bush said.

In America, mothers worry more about protecting their children from accidents by buckling them in car seats, the First Lady said. "But we also can imagine, because of the worry that mothers have universally for their children, what it would be like that you would fear diseases that everyone gets, that are chronic, that you might have had yourself, like malaira and AIDS," she added.

Since her Cape Town visit 17 months ago, the First Lady has become a public advocate for the administration's $15 billion, five-year plan to battle AIDS internationally, a program President Bush launched in 2003.

Thursday, she extends her advocacy to the malaria summit, called to set an agenda for fighting the disease and to get more Americans interested in battling the deadly infection.

President Bush will attend the summit as the main attraction, but it's clear that Mrs. Bush and her office have taken the lead in organizing the meeting.

``I think getting the engagement of the First Lady and by extension the president makes all the difference in the world in terms of moving big agendas forward,'' said Nils Daulaire, president of the Global Health Council, the world's largest alliance on health issues. Daulaire and other global health advocates said they hope that Mrs. Bush only expands her agenda to include other fatal childhood diseases, including pneumonia and diarrhea.

In July 2005, after a 35-minute meeting with HIV-positive mothers in the Khayelitsha slums of Cape Town, Mrs. Bush emerged deeply moved. The women she met were part of Mothers 2 Mothers, an organization founded by an American doctor which links HIV-positive women with infected pregnant women to make sure they receive treatment to reduce the chances of HIV transmission during birth.

Through a mother's eyes, Mrs. Bush said, she saw her daughter Barbara deal with the daily tragedies while working as an unpaid aide at the Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital in Cape Town.

``You never forget about that. ... It's tough to see babies die.' The First Lady recalled yesterday that the women, some with children nearby, sang for her at the meeting -- a moment that deeply moved her and spurred her to become more involved.

``One moment that was actually very, very emotional was when they sang to me,'' she said in front of a fireplace decorated with fir branches and bright red bulbs. ``It makes you kind of want to weep. There's an emotional pull of it. I'll remember the faces of the children. I'll remember how precious they are.'' Since then, she has hosted six of the women earlier this year in the White House and invited one of them back in September for a trip to New York City. That visit, she said, included a trip to the New York Stock Exchange and a global literacy meeting that attracted the spouses of 30 world leaders.

``It was like a miracle,'' said Gloria Ncanywa, 32, who was Mrs.

Bush's guest on that trip. In a phone interview yesterday from the Harare neighborhood of Khayelitsha, Ncanywa said the First Lady ``held my hand.

She made me feel like a queen. No, she made me feel more like a granddaughter, and she was like a grandmother spoiling her granddaugther.

She gave me hope.'' Mrs. Bush laughed when she heard of Ncanywa's description.

``I like that because I know they mean it in a wonderful way, the way that a grandmother loves her grandchildren,'' she said.

Robin Smalley, international director of Mothers 2 Mothers, described Mrs. Bush as ``our guardian angel.'' The program is set to receive roughly $11 million from the US government this year, allowing it to expand to Zambia, Rwanda, and Kenya, officials said.

In the Cape Town meeting with Mrs. Bush, ``you could watch her face, she really was affected by their stories,'' Smalley said. ``They actually saw her get teary, she was so moved by the experience.'' Smalley said the women asked Mrs. Bush ``if it was OK to call her grand mama, and she said it was OK.'' She said one of the women who received a Christmas card from Mrs. Bush ``was so excited -- she said she got a well-wishing card from Grand Mama Bush. [The First Lady] is clearly not doing this for publicity -- who would know that she sent a card to a South African township? It's something that really touched her.'' Mrs. Bush, who has taken three trips to Africa as First Lady and hopes to return next year, said she decided to join the malaria initiative because the disease is ``something we can eradicate. We had malaria in the United States and we don't anymore.'' The President's Malaria Initiative, a $1.2 billion plan over five years that started last year, combines bed nets, insecticides used inside homes, and a combination of powerful drugs to fight the disease. Malaria No More, a new private group, has begun to educate Americans on the mosquito-transmitted disease, which kills an estimated 1 million people a year, most in Africa.

Raymond Chambers, a philanthropist who is chairman of the malaria group, met recently with Mrs. Bush and told her about his first-hand look at the problem.

``He went to Africa and he saw these little babies, and he thought they were the most beautiful little babies, and they were asleep,'' Mrs.

Bush said of Chambers. ``But instead they were in a malaria coma and then they died. He will never forget that." She said that Malaria No More will ``reach out to let people know what they can do as individuals, as Girl Scouts, as Boy Scouts, as church groups, as Sunday schools" including raising even small amounts of money for the cause. "The idea that with $10 an American child can save the life of a child in Africa with an insecticide-treated malaria net is a way for people in the United States to reach across and save lives," she said.

. ``People want to do that. I know they do,'' she said. ``I know the American people want to help in any way they can. I'm sure your newspaper, if you wrote a story about an abandoned baby, or whatever, you'd get phone calls from people that say,`Well, I want to help.' You know, it really happens. So that's exciting.'' John Donnelly can be reached at