09/17/2006 09:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Clinton, Gates, and Global Health

Two of the most influential people on earth, Bill Clinton and Bill Gates, have stepped forward as champions of public health, and in the process have catapulted the public health agenda--preventing disease, promoting health--to the pinnacle of global visibility.

When you combine Bill Clinton's worldwide stature, drive and personality with Bill and Melinda Gates' unprecedented philanthropic commitment and leadership, and when you focus all of that immense power--like a laser beam--on public health problems of the developing world, you've created the possibility of achieving a global impact that can improve the lives of millions of impoverished people.

The scale of public health's remarkable awakening will be on full display this week as some 1000 corporate CEOs, foundation executives, public health activists and scientists, and political leaders (including 60 heads-of-state) come together in New York City for the second annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative. Attendees at the conference not only will talk, they're required to make commitments.

Several attendees at last year's conference recently joined together to organize a large-scale campaign to prevent malaria--a disease which many Americans erroneously believe to be a thing of the past. It may seem hard to believe, but malaria--caused by a blood parasite transmitted by mosquitoes--is a leading cause of death among African children under the age of five. And, malaria is readily preventable by providing insecticide-treated bed nets for children to sleep under, combined with other easy measures. The total cost is $10 to buy and deliver a bed net to a family in a rural African village. That bed net will help protect a child for up to five years from disease-carrying mosquitoes that primarily come out at night.

The new campaign's lead organizers, Millennium Promise (led by economist Jeffrey Sachs, businessman/philanthropist Raymond Chambers, and businessman Jeffrey Flug) and the United Nations Foundation (led by Ted Turner and former U.S. Senator Tim Wirth), are joining forces with many other public health organizations. Their goal is to raise large sums of money for bed nets, not only by mobilizing foundations and corporations but also by creating a grassroots movement through which millions of Americans can make relatively small donations--and in turn ask neighbors and friends to do the same.

Earlier this year, when Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly devoted a column to malaria prevention and asked readers to help, more than 17,000 responded, contributing over $1.2 million for the purchase and free distribution of bed nets. Clearly, Rick Reilly's column struck a chord. If one column can generate that response, imagine what an organized, sustained effort can accomplish. That's what the new campaign is all about.

Attendees at this week's Clinton Global Initiative should take a hard look at what they and their institutions can do to support this campaign. The goal is ambitious but achievable: to wipe out malaria from the face of the earth.