Leaders try to rid world of malaria deaths

September 25, 2008 10:30:04 AM PDT
Malaria as a mass child killer would be virtually eliminated globally by 2015 under a plan backed by nearly $3 billion in pledges, officials said Wednesday. With the number of malaria deaths approaching 1 million a year, mainly infants and toddlers, the infectious disease has become a scourge in remote areas of Africa and Southeast Asia.

The plan aims to reduce those deaths to almost zero within just seven years by providing better access to bed nets, indoor spraying, improved diagnosis and treatment, preventative measures for pregnant women and development of new vaccines.

The plan sponsored by the Roll Back Malaria Partnership was launched in 1998 by the World Bank and three U.N. agencies: the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children's Fund and the United Nations Development Program.

Nearly a quarter billion people get malaria each year, according to a WHO report last week. That figure halved an earlier estimate of 500 million, based on improved measurement techniques. WHO left unchanged its latest figure for malaria deaths: 881,000 people killed by malaria in 2006, most of them children under 5.

But to meet the plan's ambitious goals, leaders say they will need to collect donations totaling more than $6 billion worldwide by 2010, including $2.86 billion for Africa, and then spend up to $900 million each year after that for more research on vaccines, drugs and other new preventative tools.

"We have had isolated accomplishments over the years, but this is the first time we have drawn together those experiences to produce guidelines to replicate success globally," said Dr. Awa Marie Coll-Seck, a former health minister of Senegal, who directs the partnership.

The money is coming from nations, private donors and non-governmental organizations. The biggest donors are the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which is giving $1.62 billion over two years, and the World Bank, which is contributing $1.1 billion to rapidly expand malaria programs in Africa.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is giving $168.7 million to research a new generation of malaria vaccines. Britain pledged more than $70 million, while Marathon Oil and a coalition of businesses pledged $28 million.

With malaria draining Africa of thousands of lives and $12 billion a year, the African Union has made fighting the disease a top priority.

"So many of our nations have been crippled by malaria," Rwandan President Paul Kagame said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the plan, flanked by Kagame and other luminaries such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates and U2 frontman Bono.

"No other cause offers the same potential return on investment as malaria," said Peter Chernin, president and chief operating officer of News Corp., who also chairs the group Malaria No More.

"The support committed by the public and private sectors today will go a long way to defeating this disease and unlocking the potential of Africa."

In April, Ban called for preventative measures against malaria to be spread to all corners of the planet by the end of 2010, and appointed New Jersey philanthropist Ray Chambers to carry out the plan as U.N. special envoy for malaria.

Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said malaria control programs are yielding "impressive new gains, and scientific innovation could soon give us powerful new vaccines and drugs."

The World Health Organization also said that 25 nations with major malaria-control programs had succeeded in reducing their malaria deaths by half or more between 2000 and 2006. But less than one-third of the U.N.'s 192 member countries have acceptable ways of registering malaria cases and deaths, according to Margaret Chan, WHO's director-general.