Analysis: Malaria in the spotlight

Olga Pierce | 18 Sep 2006
United Press International
After decades of complacency, world health groups are launching an unprecedented assault on the scourge of malaria, but much work remains to be done.

"There has been increased attention to malaria," Natasha Bilimoria, executive director of Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, told United Press International. "The world is starting to realize there are things that can be done and should be done and we're doing what we can to get the funding there."

Long overlooked in the age of the AIDS epidemic, malaria sickens more than 300 million people each year and kills more than 1 million. It also exacts a heavy economic toll. The World Health Organization estimates that the disease costs Africa, which sees 80 percent of the world's cases, an estimated $12 billion per year in lost income.

Even those who are not killed experience lifelong effects, especially pregnant women and children. Malaria during pregnancy can result in miscarriage and low birth weight, and children who get the disease can grow up with slowed cognitive development.

"The real tragedy," Bilimoria said, "is the disease is preventable and curable."

Malaria is spread by mosquitoes and a variety of techniques have been developed to control it by attacking the insects. The World Health Organization (WHO) has just approved the pesticide DDT for malaria prevention after a 30-year ban and several other insecticides can also be used. Sleeping under a pesticide-treated bed net can also prevent nighttime mosquito bites. New treatments for those who have already contracted malaria are also available.

Since 1998, global resource investments in malaria control have increased by a factor of 60, with substantial contributions from the Global Fund and the Bush administration's President's Malaria Initiative, a $1.2 billion, five-year commitment of funds with the goal of reducing malaria deaths by 50 percent in 14 target sub-Saharan African countries.

Since the program's launch in 2005, lives are already being saved, Richard Green, a USAID Foreign Service Officer who works on the initiative, told congressional staffers at a briefing Monday. "We are trying to keep the momentum going. We will try to establish an even more expedited and rapid rate in year two."

Businesses have also increased their anti-malaria investments. Some of the world's largest corporations in oil, gas, construction and manufacturing recently founded the Corporate Alliance on Malaria in Africa to coordinate the efforts they are already making to eradicate malaria for business reasons.

When Marathon Oil, a founding member of the alliance, began operating in Equatorial Guinea, the company "quickly found out the single largest challenge to health is malaria," Adel Chaouch, director of corporate social responsibility, said at the briefing.

The company responded by founding a $13 million public/private partnership to reduce malaria's business toll on Bioko Island, a small island off the west coast of Africa.

Every spring, the initiative sprays the inside of about 100,000 homes on the island and as a result, the region's incidence of malaria parasites in children's blood has been reduced by 44 percent, Chaouch said.

Local authorities are now being trained to take over the project, and it is being considered for broader application in other African countries, he added.

But more work needs to be done, advocates say.

In April 2000, African leaders met in Nigeria and pledged that at least 15 percent of their state budgets would be allocated to the health sector so that 60 percent of malaria patients could get appropriate treatment within the first 24 hours.

Yet few of the countries have even come close to meeting those goals, said Michael Riggs, a spokesman for WHO. The lack of follow-through on the part of state leaders was then exacerbated by insufficient support from donors.

"Few donors put actions behind what they were saying," he said.

And despite the new commitments, there is still a large funding gap, Riggs said. WHO estimates that $4.2 billion per year is needed to scale-up malaria support to reach international targets -- far more than the current funding available.

"A significant funding gap exists," agreed Bilimoria, "and many more resources are needed to expand and sustain existing programs."