While the call by Bill and Melinda Gates to eradicate malaria has been lauded as inspirational by the heads of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria and President Bush's Malaria Initiative, others regard it as noble but quixotic, the New York Times reports.
When the Gateses delivered their challenge during a malaria conference convened by their foundation last year, they were aware it was an audacious challenge that would require more money, better health systems, and probably a vaccine, the development of which is still far in the future. To date, the Gates Foundation has spent $1.2 billion to fight malaria, which is believed to infect as many as five hundred million people and cause a million deaths every year.
Still, the tools to eradicate the disease do exist. According to Dr. Arata Kochi, malaria chief for the World Health Organization, current approaches such as nets, medicines, and DDT could drive down cases of the disease by 90 percent if adequately funded. "But eliminating the last 10 percent is a tremendous task and very expensive," said Kochi. "Even [realtively wealthy] places like South Africa should think twice before taking this path."
Indeed, despite numerous attempts over many centuries to eliminate it, the disease has proven resilient. In 1955, the WHO helped to drive the number of annual deaths due to malaria below five hundred thousand, but the success also drove many young scientists into different fields. Poverty and civil strife — particularly in African countries — also remain a major barrier to eradication.
Dr. Awash Teklehaimanot, director of the malaria program at the Earth Institute of Columbia University, said he worried that calls for eradication raised expectations too high, inviting frustration and a loss of political will. "Maybe ten, fifteen years from now, we should consider this," he added.