Malaria fight gains political muscle

Sandi Doughton | 12 Dec 2006
Seattle Times
Two of the world's most influential women are banding together to fight malaria, and one of them is coming to the table with a lot of cash.

Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, announced $83.5 million in grants for malaria prevention, treatment and research Monday, just days before a major summit at the White House.

First lady Laura Bush will join her husband in hosting the meeting of top experts to discuss a disease that was eradicated more than 50 years ago in the United States but still kills more than a million people every year in Africa, Asia and other impoverished parts of the world.

Laura Bush has added malaria to her list of special concerns and has added her voice to calls to cut malaria deaths in half by 2010.

Melinda Gates and her Microsoft-founder husband have been devoting much of their considerable wealth to the cause for the past several years. Monday's grants bring the Gates Foundation's total spending on malaria to nearly $766 million. In 2004, the nations of the world collectively spent about $323 million on malaria research.

"Every day, thousands of mothers watch helplessly as their children die from a disease that we have known how to prevent for decades," Gates said in a statement, calling the toll a "moral outrage."

At Thursday's summit, she will call on world leaders to increase spending and coordinate their efforts.

What is malaria?

Malaria is a serious and sometimes fatal disease caused by one of four kinds of parasites. It's transmitted by being bitten by an infected mosquito.

Symptoms: People with the disease suffer high fevers, shaking chills and other flu-like symptoms.

Treatment: Can be treated with anti-malarial drugs, but some medications don't work because the parasite has become resistant to them.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Even the world's biggest philanthropy can't provide the $3 billion a year experts say is needed to break the cycle of malaria in the developing world. Last year, the Bush administration launched a $1.2 billion, five-year initiative to target the mosquito-borne disease in several of the world's poorest countries. European nations devote about $40 million a year to malaria research. But spending still falls far short.

"It's time to close the gap in funding, accelerate research and work together in a more strategic way to strengthen the global malaria fight," Gates said.

Of the $83.5 million in grants announced Monday, nearly 70 percent will go to two programs coordinated by PATH, a Seattle nonprofit that works to improve the health of people in poor countries.

A project to reach 80 percent of Zambia's population with insecticide-treated bed nets, bug sprays and malaria drugs will get $29 million. The goal is to demonstrate that steps already known to prevent and cure malaria can be taken on a national scale, said Dr. Regina Rabinovich, who heads infectious-disease programs at the Gates Foundation.

"We really need to have the story told of what happens when we scale up these malaria interventions," she said.

With the extra money, four other African nations will be brought into the program.

An additional $29.3 million will go to PATH's Malaria Vaccine Initiative, an effort to test a wide range of potential drugs and speed the most promising to market. Specifically, the new money will accelerate work on a vaccine made from malaria parasites killed by radiation.

"The bigger-picture strategy has to be not just controlling malaria with the tools we have today but an investment in research for the tools we will need tomorrow," Rabinovich said.

The rest of the new money will go to develop preventive treatment for infants, evaluate methods of diagnosing malaria and provide assistance to anti-malaria programs in several Southern African nations.

In addition to doling out money, the Gates Foundation works to shine a spotlight on neglected diseases, like malaria. High-profile grant announcements and public statements by the Gateses are crafted to encourage governments, industry and other private foundations to ante up as well.

Such leveraging is "a goal for the program at all times," Rabinovich said.

Some experts credit the Gates Foundation's work with being one of the prime inspirations behind President Bush's malaria initiative.

Rabinovich demurs on this point and turns it around.

"To have the White House paying this kind of attention is wonderful," she said.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or