10/28/2011 02:56 pm ET Updated Dec 28, 2011

Gates Praises Church in Malaria Fight

More than 1.1 million children, pregnant mothers and working fathers are alive today because of gains in preventing and treating malaria. Since 2000, the malaria death rate has been reduced by 20 percent.

United Methodists have played a role in that fight, and the church's work drew praise from philanthropist Melinda Gates Oct. 18, during the Malaria Forum sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The answer to ending malaria rests in leadership, Gates said.

"Leaders inspire us to do the extraordinary," she told her audience of 300.

"(United) Methodist Bishop Thomas Bickerton believes the meaning of the scripture is the service rendered by millions of (United) Methodists. So his church created Imagine No Malaria. He took something that was none of his business and made it his business with this campaign. Now (United) Methodists from all over have made it their business too, by donating to this cause," she said.

'Change the future'

Gates told the story of 2-year-old Said Shakuru, who was unconscious from malaria when his mother brought him to a hospital.

"But he's alive today because he received the treatment that he needed," Gates said.

"Several years ago, his older sister got sick with malaria, too. But she didn't get the treatment she needed, and she died," Gates told group. "Said's mother has felt the difference between then and now more keenly than any of us sitting in this room. For her, it's the difference between her daughter's tragic death and the enormous hopes that she has for her beautiful son.

"We can't change the past, but we are changing the future," she said.

More funding needed

Gates said she is filled with optimism about what can be accomplished. She noted that the use of bed nets has dramatically reduced deaths caused by malaria, but she cautioned that "we are at the very early stages of this disease" and that a prolonged, sustained effort will be required to prevent reversing the positive trends.

She told the forum that the world needs to move even faster to eliminate deaths caused by malaria, and she called for doubling current funding levels to fill the gap between the present and what is needed for the future.

Along with the mention of The United Methodist Church, Gates cited other leaders in the global fight against the disease: Dr. Saleem Abdul, director of the Research Institute in Tanzania and principal investigator in a pioneering vaccine trial, President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania for creating the African Leaders Malaria Alliance, which releases a scorecard to make the progress of all member countries a matter of public record, and Awa Marie Coll-Seck, executive director of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, which is the global umbrella group coordinating malaria response.

The Imagine No Malaria campaign was initiated by the General Conference of the church in 2007. It is a multi-pronged effort including a fundraising campaign goal of $75 million, public policy advocacy for funds, research and treatment, and the creation of a sustainable health infrastructure in Africa -- where the malaria burden is greatest -- plus training health workers and distributing bed nets and medications.