David Brandling Bennett

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Gates Foundation confabs, and confounds, on malaria eradication | 

Flickr, Gustavo

Four years ago, Bill and Melinda Gates shocked, and to some degree dismayed, many in the global health community by calling for the eradication of malaria.

Starting today in Seattle, four years to the day after the Gateses’ made the call for eradication, the world’s richest couple will host the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s second global Malaria Forum aimed at celebrating progress, confronting the remaining challenges and re-committing to eradication.

It’s mostly that last bit, eradication, which tends to stick in some folks’ craw.

At the 2007 meeting, many of the top malaria experts in attendance were critical (privately, for the most part) of the Gateses’ call to eradication. Some said it was irresponsible, or at best naïve, given the sorry history of earlier attempts at eradicating this global killer. I covered the 2007 meeting for the Seattle PI and quoted two leading experts:

“Everyone is in favor of eradicating malaria,” said Dr. Brian Greenwood, a malaria expert at the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. What has so often bedeviled such good intentions, Greenwood said, is the hazard of raising expectations too high and creating a culture of impatient demand rather than steadfast progress.

“We will have to be extremely careful how this is translated into action,” said Dr. Marcel Tanner, director of the Swiss Tropical Institute in Basel, Switzerland. Unless the international community also is willing to help improve the poor health systems of these countries, Tanner said, the noble goal of eradicating malaria is unlikely to succeed.

“If we don’t do that, though I hesitate to say it, we will surely fail,” Tanner said.

The problem, as Greenwood said, isn’t the sentiment. Everyone would like to see malaria go the way of smallpox. The problem is that if eradication fails, again, many are concerned the more modest but life-saving efforts aimed at controlling the disease will be abandoned, again.

“There are people who are skeptical and we need to listen to them,” said David Brandling-Bennett, head of the malaria program at the Gates Foundation. “But the call for eradication has really created a sea change in the malaria community, getting us all to think about what can be done and what needs to be done.”

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