A team of Australian malaria experts has been meeting in Canberra to find the most efficient ways to combat the disease in the South Pacific. Canberra has just announced a new multi-million dollar aid package to help efforts in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

The Solomon Islands has the highest incidence of malaria in the South Pacific followed by Vanuatu. And the disease is one of the leading causes of death in Papua New Guinea.

Australia is increasing its anti-malaria aid in the region - trying to reduce the rate of infections.

The money will be used to train medical staff, provide testing kits and fund education campaigns.

The new Malaria Reference Group is meeting for the first time in Canberra. The job of this panel of experts is to make sure that Australian aid is spent wisely on tackling the disease.

The group's chairman, Sir Richard Feachem, says much work still needs to be done in the South Pacific.

"Both in terms of child death, child sickness which keeps children away from schools, of course, and has an economic consequence, and also sickness in adults, which reduces productivity, and the deterrent effect on investment and the tourist trade, which is important obviously for Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands - if we add all these things together we would have to conclude that malaria should be right up at the top of the list of priorities for these countries," said Feachem.

Some scientists here believe that a "reasonably good" malaria vaccine is just a few years away. They're pinning their hopes on a drug based on a Chinese herb.

It is derived from a common plant called sweet wormwood, which the Chinese have long used to treat fevers. The drug has been tested in parts of Indonesia, India, Bangladesh and Burma.

Every year, between 350 and 500 million people around the world are infected with malaria, which is transmitted by mosquitoes. More than one million die from the disease. In addition to the South Pacific islands, some of the worst hit nations are in Africa and South Asia.