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Public Health Experts, NGOs See Progress Against Malaria

Each year, malaria takes the lives of more than one million people in sub-Saharan Africa, many of them children. The disease is caused by a parasite spread by mosquitoes, and such simple protections as mosquito nets on beds can dramatically reduce the rate of infection. Mike O'Sullivan reports, health workers and members of non-government organizations who spoke in Los Angeles see progress and challenges in the fight against the disease.

A Canadian group called Spread the Net has launched an Internet campaign in conjunction with the United Nations children's agency, UNICEF. A promotional video uses rap music to spread the message.

"Every 30 seconds a child in Africa dies of malaria from a simple mosquito bite, but you can stop it."

The group asks for donations of $10 to buy and distribute pesticide-treated bed nets.

Public health experts and representatives of NGOs outlined recent malaria initiatives at the global conference of the Milken Institute, which looks at worldwide trends in society and business. John Tedstrom, executive director of the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, says malaria kills 3,000 people a day but gets too little attention.

"And if this were any other tragedy, if it were not an infectious disease, we would be calling it some type of crime against humanity," said John Tedstrom. "And that's exactly what it is."

Peter Chernin is president of the media giant News Corporation and chairman of the non-profit group Malaria No More. His company has raised awareness of anti-malaria efforts through the talent show American Idol on its Fox subsidiary. Chernin says malaria is comparable to the natural and manmade disasters that have captured the world's attention: the terror attacks on New York, the Asian tsunami, and Hurricane Katrina.

"That's a World Trade Center every day," said Peter Chernin. "It's a tsunami, which the world galvanized around, once a month. It's a Katrina every two or three days."

He says malaria affects Africa's economies, causing financial losses of $12 billion a year both directly and through lost productivity.

Malaria can be cured through a three-day regimen of drugs that now cost just 37 cents. Today's regimens include the compound artemisinin, derived from Chinese herbal medicine. The experts say these highly effective drugs and pesticide-treated bed nets can slash the infection rate.

They say a number of African nations, including Rwanda, Ethiopia, Zanzibar and Kenya are making progress against the disease. Blaise Karibushi is Rwanda country director of the group Access Project, which works to improve health care delivery systems. He says the malaria rate in Rwanda was reduced dramatically through mosquito nets, preventative treatment for pregnant women and other measures. He says in 2001, three quarters of visits to health centers were for malaria, but today, the disease is responsible for fewer than one in six visits.

Specialists say Africans need 250 million pesticide-impregnated mosquito nets. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently appeared on a special edition of the show American Idol to promise 20 million. With additional pledges in place from the United States, other countries and international agencies, Peter Chernin says that pledges of 100 million more nets are needed.

Chernin gives credit to the British prime minister, the World Bank, philanthropists such as Bill and Melinda Gates, and the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, an international body founded in 2002. He also credits the Bush administration for its initiatives against malaria and AIDS through such programs as the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

"It is probably, I think, the great legacy of this administration," he said. "And I'm certainly not in favor of a lot of things they do, but they have been remarkable in their support of malaria [initiatives], both through PEPFAR, through support of the Global Fund, through the creation of the President's Malaria Initiative. And I think one of the key things that's important for us is that we need to make sure that the next administration, whether it's Senator Clinton, Senator Obama or Senator McCain, shows the same sort of leadership and commitment to malaria."

Public health expert Richard Feachem, the former director of the Global Fund, says malaria may take decades to eradicate, but existing tools can reduce the death rate quickly. He cautions that as health workers make progress against the disease, drug-resistant malaria is emerging in Asia, and some pesticides are losing their effectiveness against infected mosquitoes. He adds that medical researchers have not yet developed an effective malaria vaccine.

He says there are leaders in the fight against malaria, and that Canada, the United States and Britain are doing their part, but questions whether Italy, France, Germany and Japan are doing theirs. He says that African success stories, including Rwanda, are the results of effective leadership in both the developed and developing world.