What's an oil company's return on investment for fighting malaria? A lot higher than you'd think. Outside the Middle East, many of the world's reserves of petroleum and natural gas are located in Central and Western Africa, where malaria takes a particularly horrific toll. By the most conservative estimates, the mosquito-borne disease kills 1 million people in Africa each year--most of them children--and it hurts businesses by sapping the energy of hundreds of millions of adults.
So when Marathon Oil decided in 2002 to expand its natural-gas operations to Bioko (pop. 250,000), just off the coast of Equatorial Guinea, company managers focused their attention on the region's crippling malaria rate. Marathon concluded that protecting only its employees and contractors wouldn't be enough. Because mosquitoes will bite anybody and Marathon expects the island facility to be productive for 40 years or more, the company adopted a more ambitious goal: it is working with its business partner Noble Energy, nonprofit organizations and the Equatoguinean government to stop transmission of the disease on the island within five years.
Together, Marathon and its partners developed a comprehensive $12 million plan that targeted mosquitoes and called for improvements in medical care. Because infected mosquitoes tend to bite at night, when people are home, an indoor spraying program using the pesticide bendiocarb was launched to interrupt the cycle of transmission. (Small amounts of the chemical are applied directly to walls where mosquitoes like to linger.) At the same time, the Ministry of Health of Equatorial Guinea introduced the use of artemisinin-based combination therapy, the new standard of treatment for malaria in the underdeveloped world.
It's the first time Marathon (2005 revenues: $63 billion) has ever undertaken a large public-health project, but results have so far exceeded expectations. In just the first two years, the number of infected mosquitoes has fallen 95%, and the number of children 2 to 15 years old with malaria parasites in their blood has dropped from 45% to 26%. (The decline in children lags that of mosquitoes because it takes a while to clear parasites from previous infections.) And malaria cases among Marathon personnel have dropped from 20 to 30 a month to two or three a month.
The results also reflect the value of good data collection and verification--a core competency in the oil business that translates well in the public-health arena. Satellite imagery like that Marathon used to site its natural-gas processing complex helped determine how the sprayers should organize their visits. Teams of Equatoguineans collect and test mosquitoes from traps in various homes to see where adjustments need to be made. Information about family health, mosquito numbers and geopositional locations is recorded on the spot with handheld wireless devices and transmitted to a centralized location.
Similarly, and significantly, the government has met the challenge. The Ministry of Health spent most of 2004 creating a patient registry that allows health officials to monitor progress in care and treatment across the island. "We wanted to make sure we understood if the project was working or not," says Adel Chaouch, Marathon's director of corporate social responsibility.
Just as important was technology transfer: Marathon officials wanted to be certain that the people of Equatorial Guinea would eventually be able to run the project entirely on their own. Although the company turned to Medical Care Development International, a Maryland-based nongovernmental organization, to get the program up and running, the group kept the number of expatriates involved to a minimum. "It was a huge training effort," says Dr. Brian Linder, director of health services for Marathon. "The idea is to build capacity and sustainability, and you can't do that if you hire it all in."
The broadly collaborative approach is working elsewhere in Africa as well. BHP Billiton (2005 revenues: $32 billion), an international petroleum and mining company, joined a similar partnership of businesses, charities and government organizations to decrease malaria rates in southern Mozambique, where the conglomerate has an aluminum smelter.
There's still a lot more to do. Health officials believe that using present-day tools and know-how could cut the malaria death rate in African countries 50%. The President's Malaria Initiative, announced by the Bush Administration in 2005, has pledged $1.2 billion for the effort over the next five years. For its part, Marathon helped the Equatoguinean government apply for a $26 million grant from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria to expand the campaign to the rest of Equatorial Guinea. Clearly it is a good policy for business--and even better for people.