Gates Fights To Eradicate Malaria

Ruthie Ackerman | 19 Oct 2007

Nowadays every cause has a celebrity attached to it. Madonna is adopting orphans in Malawi. Bono is rocking to relieve debt in Africa. Even Angelina Jolie is shining a light on refugees around the world.

But until recently malaria, the infectious disease transmitted by mosquitoes, has had no gung-ho celebrity attached to it. In fact, in 2005 there were only three advocates in the world who concentrated solely on malaria.

Louis Da Gama was one of them. At the United Nations Global Youth Leadership Summit, which took place in New York in October of last year, Da Gama invited black celebrities to come to Africa to be the face of malaria. "I shout and scream because nobody else is shouting and screaming," Da Gama said. "With all the HIV activists in the world, not one of the celebrities has come out for malaria."

But that was then and this is now. Celebrities are jumping on the bandwagon, with everyone from David Beckham to Ashley Judd getting involved. And even Melinda Doolittle, a finalist on last season's American Idol, has made malaria her cause. Doolittle teamed up with First Lady Laura Bush for a four-day whirlwind tour of Africa's malaria belt as part of Reality TV World reports.

In fact, funding for malaria has grown 300% in the last three years and is currently $200 billion per year. That level of funding, says Martin Edlund, the communications director at Malaria No More, brings out a lot more players and a lot more sophistication.

And it's not just Hollywood celebrities. On Thursday, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation delivered a call to action to more than 300 malaria scientists and policy makers at the Gates Foundation Malaria Forum in Seattle. Their goal: to have a day when no human being has malaria and no mosquito on earth carries it.

Melinda Gates is co-chairwoman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has committed $860 million to malaria programs and another $650 million to support the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Forbes magazine has ranked Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, as the richest person in the world from 1995 to 2007, placing his net worth near $59 billion. So with $59 billion and almost as many causes to support, why malaria?

It's simple, malaria offers the chance for a great return on investment. Here's the math: ninety percent of the annual one million malaria deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa. Plus, malaria costs Africa $12 billion in lost productivity. Gates made it even simpler: one million malaria deaths a year is equivalent to "losing every student in the New York City public school system in one year."

Edlund said malaria eradication is a critical first step towards making the African economy productive. "Ten dollars buys a bed net, delivers it to Africa, installs it, educates people on how to use it and protects two people, often a mother and child, for up to five years," he said.

Since 2005, when the Gates Foundation began work on malaria advocacy, it has helped not only with fundraising and advocacy, but also with developing anti-malarial drugs and looking for a treatment. Presently, it's working with GlaxoSmithKline on a malaria vaccine, currently in Phase II trials.

One reason, Edlund said, so many people are attracted to the cause is because it's an achievable goal. Unlike poverty, which is broad and multi-layered, malaria is easy. Medicines treat the disease and bed nets and insecticides prevent it. Also, treating malaria kills two birds with one stone--its tied to poverty so tackling the disease makes fighting poverty easier.

Easy-to-understand issues are key to attracting attention. Idol Gives Back, a two-day televised charity event sponsored by Fox, American Idol, and Charity Projects Entertainment Fund to help children and young people in extreme poverty here in the United States and Africa, views malaria as a gateway issue, Edlund said. American Idol fans, he says, can see dramatic progress in the short term making it "the perfect issue for engaging the general American public."

Of course it helps that the world is focused on Africa right now in a way it never has been before with a slew of films about Africa -- from The Constant Gardener, to Blood Diamonds, to The Last King of Scotland -- to Vanity Fair's Africa issue. Also, having Tony Blair, George Bush, and Angela Merkel all use the "M" word, as Phillips calls it, in recent speeches can't hurt.

And even President Bush is putting his money where his mouth is. The President's Malaria Initiative is a $1.2 billion effort, which started in 2005, and is gaining traction. "If you win this office, you will inherit a record commitment to fighting malaria," Gates said. "The world needs you to sustain it and enhance it. Malaria will never be eradicated without the full support of the President of the United States."

The private sector is waking up and taking notice too. Dr. Steven Phillips, the medical director of global issues and projects at ExxonMobil, said the world is looking to coalesce around a development success. "We need a victory," he said. "As opposed to taking on everything at the same time the world is saying let's take one issue we can win and lets put it up in neon lights."