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Leaders see world closing in on malaria

New pledges totaling $3 billion could help wipe out deaths from the mosquito-borne disease by 2015.

September 28, 2008|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — With $3 billion in new pledges, world leaders say they believe that an ambitious goal to stop deaths from malaria by 2015 is finally within reach.

A plan billed as the most comprehensive ever to tackle the mosquito-borne disease, which kills nearly 1 million people each year, was unveiled last week at a United Nations gathering of heads of government, global health leaders and philanthropists.

It calls for sharply increasing the use of relatively simple prevention efforts, such as distribution of insecticide-treated bed nets and the spraying of homes, and boosting vaccine research.

"To be able to say with conviction for the first time that all countries will be able to see an end to malaria deaths . . . is indeed a historic moment," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told reporters here Thursday. "What seemed impossible a few years ago is now possible."

Malaria is the leading cause of death for children around the world. But the scourge began to draw high-profile attention only after the United Nations in 2000 made its eradication one of the Millennium Development Goals, a set of targets for reducing poverty by 2015. International spending to fight the disease reached an average of $1 billion a year from 2002 to 2007, according to the online journal PLoS Medicine.

The World Health Organization in a report last week put the number of malaria cases in 2006 at 247 million and the number of deaths at 881,000, most of them children younger than 5 in sub-Saharan Africa. The figures are slightly lower than in previous reports; the drop is attributed to better counting methods.

But participants at the U.N. gathering said they were buoyed by a real decline of 50% or more in malaria deaths during this decade in some African countries that have mounted aggressive prevention and treatment programs.

Those include Eritrea, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, and the Zanzibar region of Tanzania. The WHO report pointed out that they have relatively small populations, a factor that might have made progress against the disease easier.

About one-third of the new funding will go toward a World Bank campaign in Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which account for at least 30% of all malaria deaths.

The plan was unveiled with fanfare by participants in the gathering, including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and U2 singer Bono.

The $3-billion commitment was described as the largest batch of anti-malaria pledges ever. But the campaign's organizers said additional investments of at least $1 billion a year would be needed to reduce the number of deaths to zero over the next seven years.

The pledges include $1.6 billion from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; $1.1 billion from the World Bank; $168.7 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; $2 million from Ted Turner's United Nations Foundation; and $28 million from a coalition of corporations led by Marathon Oil Corp.

Brown committed about $83 million from the British government. The U.S. government this year approved $5 billion over five years.

The plan calls for expanding access to bed nets and treatment to everyone in vulnerable regions of Africa and Asia by 2010. The Gates money will support research to develop a vaccine against the parasite that causes the disease.

"This is a great plan," Gates said. "It's going to make a huge difference."

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boudreaux@latimes.com

Times staff writer Mary Engel in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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