World Leaders Embrace Goal of Ending Malaria Deaths by 2015

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 26, 2008

UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 25 -- With a dramatic series of announcements Thursday, world leaders declared what experts just two years ago considered virtually impossible: They believe the number of deaths caused by malaria can fall from more than 1 million annually to zero by 2015.

Heads of state, philanthropists and global health leaders hailed as a milestone data showing malaria rates are falling for the first time in some African nations. Private donors, buoyed by the success of prevention efforts and the promise of a scientific breakthrough that could eradicate the disease, pledged on Thursday an unprecedented sum -- more than $3 billion -- for malaria programs.

Caused by a parasite and transmitted to humans through the bites of infected mosquitoes, malaria is the single greatest cause of death for the world's children. In distressed African countries, the distribution of insecticide-treated bed nets and the spraying of homes and other buildings have contributed to the decline. There have also been advances toward developing a vaccine.

For a humanitarian community that started funding malaria projects on a large scale a few years ago, positive results have emerged remarkably quickly and cheaply. For instance, a bed net that protects a child from contracting malaria costs just $10 to manufacture and deliver.

"This campaign has achieved more in a year than most campaigns have achieved in 100 years," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said. "To be able to say with conviction for the first time that all countries will be able to see an end to malaria deaths by 2015 is indeed a historic moment of great significance. . . . What seemed impossible a few years ago is now possible."

The malaria summit attracted the heads of more than a dozen countries, and leaders unveiled the first-ever comprehensive blueprint for eliminating the disease. The Global Malaria Action Plan calls for expanding access to bed nets and treatment to everyone in need by 2010, with the goal of reducing by 2015 the number of malaria deaths to zero.

"We are getting closer to containing this scourge," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told members of the General Assembly.

"How is this happening?" Ban asked. "With a pathbreaking public-private coalition, solid science, better statistics and precise financing, with the coordination of the right countries and partners, and above all with the leadership."

The new funding commitments include: $1.6 billion from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; $1.1 billion from the World Bank; $168.7 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; $2 million from Ted Turner's United Nations Foundation; and $100 million from a coalition of corporations, including $28 million from Houston-based Marathon Oil to extend its malaria-prevention program across Equatorial Guinea.

"This is what I call a billion-dollar moment for a century-old disease," Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, said as she pledged to "kill malaria."

"We're not here just because malaria is a massive problem. Malaria is also a massive opportunity," said businessman Raymond Chambers, the U.N. special envoy for malaria. "By keeping the pressure on, we can literally prevent the loss of millions of children in seven years."

Bono, the lead singer of U2 and co-chair of the ONE anti-poverty campaign, told summit attendees: "I'm not here as a rock star. Really, I'm here as a fan. . . . This malaria thing is extraordinary."

Several Western governments pledged public funds toward fighting malaria. Brown committed about $83 million from the British government. The U.S. government this year approved $5 billion over five years, said Henrietta H. Fore, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

But Jeffrey D. Sachs, an economist and leading anti-poverty advocate, lambasted government officials, saying they had been too slow to follow the advice of scientists and invest in malaria controls.

"Take no shortcuts between now and 2015. It's the shortcuts that kill the children," Sachs said.

Data released by the World Health Organization suggests recent progress. The African nations of Eritrea, Rwanda and Sao Tome and Principe reported that malaria deaths dropped by about 50 percent from 2000 to 2006. Significant declines in malaria deaths were also cited in Madagascar, Zambia and Tanzania and in several Asian countries.

World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick called the progress "a fascinating example of how you can focus on a problem."

The percentage of children protected by bed nets increased almost eightfold in 18 African nations from 2001 to 2006, from 3 percent to 23 percent, the World Health Organization report says. But with 125 million people protected by bed nets, 650 million more are considered still at risk.

The Gates Foundation's $168.7 million grant is its largest single investment in malaria. The money, awarded to the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative, will help fund malaria research at several Washington area laboratories and elsewhere around the world, with the aim of yielding the first approved vaccine.

Christian Loucq, director of the PATH initiative, said, "If we want to eradicate malaria, we will need a very potent vaccine, and that's what we will do with this money."

Thursday's malaria summit took on a celebratory tone, with attendees cheering their success toward controlling the disease and the political momentum of their cause. Just hours before, as they addressed the Clinton Global Initiative, former president Bill Clinton's philanthropy conference, Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) promised to expand the fight against malaria if elected president.

Helene Gayle, president of the humanitarian organization CARE, said malaria was "on the back burner for so long." But, she said, "to have something like malaria where you can show success in a short time, it really does galvanize the movement."

"Everyone needs victories," said Timothy Wirth, president of the U.N. Foundation. "Everyone needs coonskins on the wall, and this is a good one."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company