Experts on malaria say the obstacle to reducing the disease in Africa is no longer technical, but financial. They point to recent scientific advances against the virus, which they say can dramatically cut its incidence if more money is forthcoming.
Leaders of groups fighting malaria briefed congressional staff members on the progress being made in medicines, a vaccine, and other anti-malaria technology. Combined with their message was an appeal to boost the U.S. commitment to the global campaign against the virus.
The head of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, Richard Feachem, told the legislative aides the disease continues to spread in Africa needlessly. He says the vast majority of the three million people who die from it each year are African children.
"This is a completely unnecessary child holocaust," he said. "Malaria is the greatest killer of African children today, and all this is preventable, all this is need not happen."
Mr. Feachem says new and well established technologies are having an impact against malaria wherever they have been combined. They include a recently developed mosquito net from Japan impregnated with long lasting insecticide, indoor insecticide spraying, novel rapid diagnostic techniques, a new combination therapy using the Chinese herb Artemisinin that is more expensive than older treatments but more effective, and automatic treatment of pregnant women.
"We know that where those interventions are applied at a serious scale, malaria collapses," he said.
A good example is a 100,000-square-kilometer area of South Africa, Mozambique, and Swaziland where a three-nation initiative has slashed the prevalence of children's malaria from 64 percent to less than eight percent since 1999.
Another promising new technology is an experimental vaccine developed by the pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline. Tests last year showed it prevented malaria in 30 percent of the Mozambican children inoculated and kept it from becoming life-threatening in nearly 60 percent. The percentages are lower than with vaccines for other diseases, but higher than using bed nets and insecticides
Glaxo is planning more extensive trials in cooperation with the Malaria Vaccine Initiative, a private group lead by Melinda Moree. She says science is no longer the chief impediment to progress against the disease, and appealed for more American financial assistance.
"Today it's truly money much more than science that limits our possibility of progressing in these areas," she said. "We need to seize this opportunity and turn the very important scientific breakthroughs into real products that can make a difference in the lives of children. The United States must help accomplish what our own public health officials have been able to do in this country in wiping out malaria that we had for many, many decades."
But Ms. Moree says malaria has much less priority in the United States than AIDS and bioterrorism. She notes that President Bush's proposed 2006 national budget seeks the lowest amount for bilateral spending for malaria in four years.
However, her program's documents show that the United States has provided the bulk of the global money for malaria vaccine research for years. In addition, the head of a private group called Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, Anil Soni, says the United States foots one-third of the Global Fund budget, which allocated one billion dollars for malaria over the last two years.
"The original idea for the Global Fund was for a Global AIDS Fund," he said. "The fact that it became a global fund to fight AIDS, TB, and malaria and that 44 percent of the Fund's grants are not for AIDS has helped put much more money on the table for TB and malaria than would have otherwise occurred. So I think there's a bit of good news, but a long way to go."
Global Fund Executive Director Richard Feachem points out that malaria is getting more world attention than ever before and was even discussed at the recent global economic forum in Davos, Switzerland. He says he expects his agency's spending on malaria to increase after the latest round of donor funding is completed later this year.
"It's all very achievable," he said. "If it can be done in southern Mozambique or Swaziland, it can be done in all African countries. We need to do it and we need to do it quickly."