By Ken Hackett
Not that long ago, there was a simple explanation for why malaria would never be eradicated - only poor people get it. That meant that though this disease kills approximately 880,000 people each year and infects tens of millions rendering many unable to work, to go to school, to contribute to their lives and societies for long periods of time, there was little profit to be made in curing malaria so drug companies tended to give it little attention.
As we mark World Malaria Day on April 25, it must be acknowledged that the situation has changed. The war against malaria is being fought on many fronts. Fueled by generous philanthropists - especially the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation - scientists across the globe are searching on a level never seen before for a vaccine that will protect people from malaria. They are also at work on better treatments for this mosquito-borne disease that can cause intense headaches, violent nausea and debilitating fevers.
But meanwhile millions of people still contract malaria. So, far from the scientists' laboratories, out there in those poor countries where the disease runs rampant, the fight against it is engaged. For instance, at Catholic Relief Services (CRS) on this World Malaria Day, we are announcing a program that will distribute 2.8 million insecticide-treated mosquito nets throughout the West African nation of Niger. The aim is to have 80 percent children younger than 5 years-old and pregnant women- double the current number -- sleeping under these nets by 2012. These are the people most vulnerable to malaria, most often its fatal victims.
While the cost - about $10 each -is often cited as the reason many do not have nets, it is not enough to provide them for free. Distribution must be accompanied by education in their proper use for nets to become effective fighters against malaria. But it has been proven that with the right education - especially when accompanied by a targeted insecticide campaign - nets can be an effective tool in reducing the incidence of this deadly disease that saps the health not only of people, but also of countries' economies.
This net distribution is part of the effort by the Global Fund to hand out 70 million bed nets throughout the malaria-affected areas of the world. The very existence of the Global Fund is a tribute to how the fight against malaria has changed. This unique public-private partnership is dedicated to eradicating three diseases - AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. It was created in 2002 and since then has funded more than 572 programs in 140 countries, spending over $15 billion. This represents a quarter of all international funding for the fight against AIDS, two-thirds for TB and three-quarters for malaria.
On top of that, last year's reauthorization of the President's Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) recognized that to fight AIDS effectively, action is also needed against TB and malaria, diseases that often work hand-in-hand with HIV and AIDS to devastate the populations of these poor countries. PEPFAR will provide crucial funding for the malaria fight.
So the battle is joined. But understand that even with all these resources, this will be a long fight. If an effective vaccine was developed tomorrow, it would be only one step, an important one for sure, but one that would need to be followed by many more. Think of how long it was between the development of a vaccine for smallpox and its eradication in 1979 - almost 200 years. But it is a battle that can be won. The reason malaria is so rare in developed countries is that once it is gone, it is gone. If no one is getting it, then mosquitoes can't bite infected people and infect others. Malaria used to be common in the United States. But now it is rarely seen, and only then when brought from overseas. That can be true everywhere. Then, like smallpox, this scourge can disappear from the globe.
At CRS we know that this is a long struggle. We have been involved in fighting malaria literally since our inception as an organization to help World War II refugees in 1943. We are still at it and we will keep at it until malaria is no more. On this World Malaria Day, we ask you to join us.
Ken Hackett is president of Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian organization of the Catholic Church in the United States.