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Originally published September 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 26, 2008 at 12:36 AM

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Gates Foundation among donors to worldwide malaria-eradication plan

The goal of wiping out one of the world's deadliest diseases received a boost Thursday of $3 billion in new funding. It included $168.7 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to Seattle-based PATH to expand the quest for a malaria vaccine.

Seattle Times staff reporters

An ambitious goal was set in Seattle last year when Bill and Melinda Gates stood in front of a crowd of malaria experts and uttered the "e" word — — eradication.

The goal of wiping out one of the world's deadliest diseases received a boost of $3 billion in new funding Thursday and a detailed plan of action supported by 65 global institutions. The news was announced at the U.N. Summit in New York, where world leaders focused on reducing extreme poverty and disease.

The malaria funding includes the largest grant ever for Seattle-based PATH, $168.7 million from the Gates Foundation to expand the quest for a malaria vaccine.

"We're excited about the grant we're receiving as the Gates Foundation's commitment to research and development makes eradication ultimately feasible," said PATH Chief Executive Chris Elias. The $3 billion package of funding will go toward implementing a Global Malaria Action Plan, which seeks to cut malaria deaths by more than half in the next seven years, saving 4.2 million lives.

"This plan is the first step on the road to eradication," Elias said, adding that virtually everyone in the malaria field contributed to the effort. "The first thing we needed was a business plan that everyone agreed on that would show how to do that."

A malaria "Woodstock"

Last year's malaria summit in Seattle, a kind of "Woodstock" of the health world, helped set the stage for the U.N. forum and raise malaria's profile worldwide, said malaria expert Kent Campbell, who runs a Gates-funded program at PATH working with African nations to improve distribution of bed nets, increase mosquito spraying, and make anti-malarial drugs more widely available.

Besides the Gates Foundation's grant to PATH, the funding announced Wednesday includes $1.62 billion by the Global Fund, $1.1 billion by the World Bank, $83 million by the U.K.'s Department for International Development, and $28 million by a coalition of global businesses.

But it will take a lot more money than that to fully control malara — at least $57 billion, according to Roll Back Malaria, the Geneva-based umbrella organization that leads the effort. The plan calls for $5.3 billion in 2009, $6.2 billion in 2010 and $5.1 billion each year from 2011 to 2020.

break

Malaria affects half the world's population and kills nearly a million people a year, most of them African children.

The Gates Foundation has thrown its weight behind the drive for a malaria vaccine, devoting more money to the cause than any other single organization. The new $168.7 million grant brings the total Gates funding for the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative to more than $400 million.

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The money will allow testing of more vaccine candidates and development of methods to boost vaccine potency, said MVI Director Dr. Christian Loucq.

One promising vaccine, developed in cooperation with the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, is currently being tested in 16,000 African children and could be ready for distribution by 2012. But early tests show it is only partially effective.

Two other candidate vaccines, including one developed by scientists at Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, will also be moved into human trials soon.

Other helpful steps

In the meantime, the first goal is to reduce deaths and illness from malaria in the next two years by scaling up access to bed nets, indoor spraying, diagnosis and treatment to all who need it. The plan then calls for cutting the number of malaria deaths by 75 percent by 2015.

Several African countries have made progress against the disease using low-tech methods such as bed nets and indoor spraying. In Ethiopia, for example, 70 percent of households in high-risk areas now have at least one insecticide treated bed net and indoor spraying, and effective medicines are available nationwide to treat malaria.

In less than three years, Zambia has seen a 50 percent drop in the number of children infected by malaria parasites and a 29 percent drop in overall child mortality, which experts say has isalmost certainly due to thewider distribution of insecticide treated bed nets.

"That's a little miracle," said Gina Rabinovich, who directs infectious disease programs at the Gates Foundation. "We always new that would happen, but it's never been done in sub-Saharan Africa."

High return on investment

The malaria cause has attracted a diverse coalition ranging from business leaders and celebrities such as U2's Bono to heads of state and church groups.

While many of these players don't bring much money to the table, they do help shine a spotlight on malaria — like the PBS program "Sesame Street's" decision to include malaria information in its programming.

"They are taking malaria to the popular culture," Campbell said. "You've got Burt and Ernie talking about malaria now."

Even U.S. presidential and vice presidential candidates are taking notice of global health as a major issue.

"If you tried to tell me five years ago that five years later I would be listening to the word malaria come out of both president and vice president and the candidates," said Rabinovich, "I would have said you were in an altered state of consciousness."

Business leaders link reducing disease to long-term economic development. The diseases accounts for billions in lost GDP every year.

"No other cause offers the same potential return on investment as malaria," said Peter Chernin, president of News Corp and chairman of the nonprofit Malaria No More. "The support committed by the public and private sectors today will go a long way to defeating this disease and unlocking the potential of Africa."

However, as the U.N. meets in New York, the financial crisis hitting Wall Street and spreading globally could affect government foreign assistance budgets, Elias of PATH acknowledged.

"We need to be vigilant and continue to make the case that these are good investments," he said.

"Especially in tight budget times, we have to help governments understand how these investments have, in fact, paid off in lives saved."

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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