The Killer We Can Beat

New data shows that ending malaria is within our reach. We just need the resources to finish the job

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For African mothers, five years makes all the difference. That’s when their children are most vulnerable to malaria, the threat of death by mosquito bite. This week marks the fifth anniversary of the White House Summit on Malaria, a first-of-its-kind gathering of world leaders, global donors, and scientific and advocacy partners that jump started the global campaign to end deaths from the disease. As President George W. Bush said that day, “We know exactly what it takes to prevent and treat the disease. The only question is whether we have the will to act.”

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The subsequent global campaign, led by the Roll Back Malaria partnership, has begun to achieve extraordinary results. Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that deaths from malaria have fallen by more than 25% globally since 2000 — and by more than 5% in the last year alone. The decline is even sharper — 33% since 2000 — in Africa, where malaria hits hardest. That’s unprecedented progress against a disease that has plagued humanity since the dawn of history.

Despite these gains, much more needs to be done. The unacceptable fact still remains that malaria claims a child’s life in Africa every minute. The world has begun to mobilize the skills, resources and innovative genius needed to end this terrible death toll.

A simple bed net can keep the mosquitoes that spread malaria from feeding on children as they sleep and infecting them with this deadly disease. Thanks to herculean efforts by governments, industry, private foundations, faith-based organizations and communities across the globe, the number of mosquito nets procured for Sub-Saharan Africa has grown from a mere 5.6 million in 2004 to 145 million in 2010. What’s more, approximately 96% of people with access to nets actually use them, according to the WHO. Children who contract malaria now have a better chance of surviving the disease, thanks to better testing and expanded access to medicines, and an extraordinary new vaccine, the first ever developed that successfully protects against a parasitic disease, holds the promise of even greater progress in the near future. Which is why we must not stop in our fight.

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Congress is now considering major reductions in the U.S. investment in preventing and treating malaria through the President’s Malaria Initiative, founded by President Bush six years ago, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. (The House’s fiscal year 2012 bill provides $7.1 billion for global health, a 9 percent cut from 2011 levels.) Africa is increasingly making major investments in protecting the health of its own people, but Africa alone cannot succeed without targeted investments from the United States and other nations.

The next five years really will make all the difference in achieving the goal of near-zero deaths. Expanded bed net coverage, next-generation medicines, rapid diagnostics, indoor residual spraying and the new vaccine can all accelerate progress toward ending the death and disability caused by malaria. Now we need the continued will and resources to finish the job.

David Bowen is the CEO of Malaria No More, an American non-profit committed to ending deaths from malaria. Until November 2011, Bowen served as the deputy director for global health policy and advocacy at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The views expressed are his own.