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The Dilemma in the Gates Foundation’s Malaria Mission

The Seattle Times’ science reporter Sandi Doughton today provides an excellent, detailed description of the Gates Foundation’s strategy for fighting malaria.

Malaria hovers over Africa
Flickr, by ACJ1

Basically, it’s a do-or-die strategy — which is what has some malaria experts elated and others worried.

As the Times’ headline says, Bill and Melinda Gates have shaken things up by declaring that they will settle for nothing less than complete eradication of malaria. This is good news for those folks working on creating a vaccine and maybe not such good news for those working right now to prevent or control the disease with existing tools like drugs, nets or spraying programs.

The shake-up started in 2007, when the Gateses made their declaration to a crowd of malaria experts gathered in Seattle with the chief of the World Health Organization in attendance to merely echo their call.

I covered that stunning event, back when the Seattle PI was a newspaper, and heard a lot of grumbling from these experts — mostly off-the-record, of course — about how this was not such a good idea, eradication.

This was about the same time that Bill Gates asked his friend and former Microsoft chief technologist Nathan Myhrvold to help out by enlisting his team at Intellectual Ventures Lab to develop a laser-beam mosquito killing device.

Some of those in the trenches who have been fighting malaria for decades have been inspired by the Gateses’ clarion call (not to mention the money). But others remain worried that this search for a silver bullet will be a tragic case of the perfect ending up as the enemy of the good.

Current stepped-up efforts against malaria have shown progress, saving lives now, while an effective vaccine (or laser defense system) against malaria remains merely a possibility.

That’s the dilemma.

A vaccine would be the best weapon in this fight and eradication the best possible outcome.

But the Gates Foundation is clearly setting the agenda on malaria these days. And the concern among some experts is that their desire for the best could inadvertently make things worse by undermining the work being done now to combat this disease that kills a million people, mostly children, every year.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.