President Obama and the End of Malaria

This Saturday is World Malaria Day. It's an important milestone; the international malaria community has only two years to meet the 2010 target set by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of delivering treatment and protection to all people at risk of malaria.

That's sobering when you consider recent developments. After several years of extraordinary progress in the fight against the disease, those of us who face malaria in the field have had a nasty shock; malaria is making a comeback. That is discouraging news, but this setback is a potent lesson in avoiding complacency when facing a persistent killer like malaria.

Malaria's revival should serve as a call to the Obama Administration that we face difficult challenges, but that these are also unprecedented global health opportunities. Right now, President Obama may actually have the ability to eliminate one of the world's most prevalent fatal diseases.

A worldwide scourge causing approximately a million deaths annually, malaria remains the deadliest disease in sub-Saharan Africa among those age five and under, with hundreds of thousands of children dying annually. It causes millions of lost work days, striking at the heart of African productivity, costing upwards of $12 billion in losses yearly, eating up an estimated 40% of health expenditure. It is a disease that has kept Africa down, and, as we're seeing, it just keeps coming back.

But, the Gates Foundation, among others, had pushed forward new anti-malarial programs during the last few years: they recognized that this was one disease that can't be taken on with half measures. The approach has worked in Rwanda. Earlier this year, it was reported that malaria was in retreat. Cases in children under five declined by 64% and deaths fell by 66% in less than one year, the result of programs that distribute insecticide-treated bed nets and new drugs.

This September, world leaders and global health experts met at the United Nations for the 2008 Millennium Development Goals Malaria Summit, where Rwanda's success in fighting this disease caught the attention of participants, including Bono and President and COO of News Corporation Peter Chernin. Summit attendees heard that new vaccine trials are returning promising results and how malaria deaths could be ended in Africa through an initial outlay of approximately $2 billion annually. The Gates Foundation and businesses, charities and governments stepped forward with billions in pledges. At that time, the U.S. government also pledged significant resources that, if committed to the fight, will yield real results.

It will be up to the Obama Administration to honor that pledge, and if possible, to increase the commitment. In the face of recent developments, that increase is critical. It was quite literally a slap in the face earlier this year to see the young victims of malaria once again coming through the doors of local village health centers.

It is rare that we can envision the elimination of a specific disease. With malaria, we can grasp that end almost tangibly: if we have the will and the perseverance to spend what is needed for the next seven years, the end of malaria is utterly feasible.

But this will require follow-through. The global economy has embarked on a down cycle, and the commitment declared by leaders and philanthropists to dedicate resources to fighting disease could evaporate. President Obama may approach U.S. aid programs with retrenchment in mind.

In light of the crisis and opportunity before us, that would not only be inadvisable; it would be tragic. Malaria has proven to be extremely unforgiving opponents when efforts - and financing - falter.