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Malaria needs a long-term solution

28th April 2008

Efforts to stamp out malaria are increasingly visible on today's political landscape, but,

poor countriesQasks The Economist, what long-term strategy can support the first wave of charity and effect a lasting solution?

Malaria, as a disease, has historically had far less visibility than AIDS. This is because it affects children in impoverished areas, according to Regina Rabinovich of the Gates Foundation, who are “virtually invisible� to rich countries. Companies cannot make money by inventing schemes to combat the disease.

However, malaria "is about to break through and grab the world's attention. After decades of neglect, this disease is nearing the top of the global public-health agenda."

The president of the US has pledged to give $1.2 billion to support the fight against the disease over the next five years. He has also hosted highly visible "summits" on the problem. Major companies have donated money and raised awareness.

In April, the United Nations will reveal plans to massively increase the global fight against the disease. Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, is expected to talk about "a multi-billion dollar effort to reduce the number of malaria deaths to close to zero within five years or so."

These plans add to those proposed by other organisations such as McKinsey. The company wants to stop mortality from the disease in the 30 most affected African countries in five years.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said he will give African countries 20 million insecticide-treated "bed nets" and will ask other countries to give around 100 million more.

The UN's Millennium Development Goals are being held up by the disease, which costs $12 billion annually in Africa. As a result, a worldwide malaria strategy is coming to the fore. It includes bed nets, insecticide sprays and medicine to combat deaths from the disease.

Dr Rabinovich of the Gates Foundation believes netting used to protect beds can "help secure “herd immunity� through knock-on benefits". This is because it offers protection for people who sleep in a bed with a net and also protects their neighbours, as the insecticide eradicates mosquitoes that might "otherwise fly over to the next hut and spread the infection".

Sadly, these big plans could leave poor people at even higher risk. Fifty years ago the World Health Organisation spearheaded a campaign to wipe out the disease. Their success meant people stopped donating and local people stopped paying attention. This led to "nasty resurgences".

A younger population do not have the chance to become immune to malaria. If plans are not set in place to control the disease or if it has not been completely stamped out, this young population are the ones at risk.

In Sri Lanka, over 10,000 people annually are infected by malaria, although it had been nearly eradicated years previously.

McKinsey research shows that after the five year plans have been implemented, almost the same amount will need to be spent - $1.8 billion annually - to control malaria.

Malaria will come into the spotlight in the next months and the attention it receives will help to save lives. However, the long-term cost of controlling the disease must also be a focus of global political attention, or it will have disastrous consequences.

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