Malaria: World leaders unite in ‘unique’ effort to eradicate the disease

A mother places an infant onto a bed covered by a protective malaria net in Ghana. (Arne Hoel/The World Bank/Flickr)

A group concerned that malaria eradication might be falling from the radar announced a special council to keep the issue front and center.

Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Ray Chambers, the United Nations secretary-general’s special envoy for health in agenda 2030 and for malaria, announced the launch of the End Malaria Council last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“I don’t think there’s another group committed to a single disease or issue like this one,” said Martin Edlund, CEO of Malaria No More, in an interview with Humanosphere. “What I find so compelling about the End Malaria Council is not just their ability to use their voices to elevate the issue, but the way that they approach solving these problems. It’s really unique.”

The council has nine founding members, including head of the Inter-American Development Bank Luis Alberto Moreno, Chad President Idriss Déby, former Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, and other private and public sector leaders.

The team aims to build political will, mobilize resources, and support new innovations for malaria prevention and treatment.

Two people who work with Malaria No More – Chambers and media executive Peter Chernin – are part of the End Malaria Council. The council also plans to collaborate with the Roll Back Malaria Partnership – launched in 1998 by the United Nations Development Program, World Health Organization, UNICEF and the World Bank.

One of the biggest challenges the council will face is securing funding commitments from donors and governments of affected countries. Despite a steep rise in malaria spending from 2000 to 2010, Reuters reported that funding has plateaued. The U.S. is by far the largest international malaria donor, accounting for about 35 percent of global funds, which Gates warned could change under the new Trump administration.

“I wouldn’t say we see a huge risk of those funds going away, but (this is) a time when we’re trying to raise the ambition,” Gates told Reuters.

The council faces immense pressure to quickly galvanize these commitments, which Edlund said has become more critical than ever.

“It’s easier to make the case for a disease when it’s affecting hundreds of millions or billions of people on an annual basis,” Edlund said. “It becomes increasingly hard to justify country spending or donor spending when the burden becomes very low. The reality with malaria, though, is that’s when those resources are most important to finish the fight.”

Paradoxically, malaria runs the risk of coming back even stronger when it reaches low levels of transmission, as it mutates and develops resistance to existing drugs. Edlund said this has allowed the disease to resurge time and time again.

Today, malaria most strongly affects the rural poor and the young in Sub-Saharan Africa, killing a child every two minutes. The End Malaria Council said that the disease stunts productivity, burdens families with health-care costs, limits educational achievement and slows overall economic growth.

Still, a combination of investments and hard work by disease experts and health workers have cut global malaria deaths in half since 2000, saving more than 6 million lives from the disease. Malaria-related deaths are at an all-time low, thanks to significant increase in the use of insecticide-treated bed nets, diagnosis and treatment efforts.

Now, Gates said that for the first time in history, we are in a position to talk seriously about global eradication.

“The next chapter of the fight against malaria starts now,” Gates said in Davos last week. “For the first time in history, we have a roadmap to a world without malaria – where no one has to die from a mosquito bite ever again. With renewed focus, innovation and new commitments of leadership and funding, we can be the generation to end malaria once and for all.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com