At the beginning of December I went to the 60th annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. Attended by over 3500 scientists, practitioners, clinicians and students from around the world, the meeting is one of the pre-eminent global events for discussing and disseminating information related to all tropical diseases and health issues. Malaria, as you might expect, has a strong presence among the symposia, posters and presentations, with research on all aspects of its transmission, biology, molecular structure, epidemiology, control and more.
In fact, this year malaria took center stage from the very beginning, as the focus of the opening plenary speech, by Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Colombia University. He emphasized much of the positive news that has recently been reported regarding the on-going fight against malaria, such as improved bednet coverage, lower prevalence rates in high-risk groups such as pregnant women, and reduced mortality worldwide. In fact, the World Health Organisation just released the encouraging statistic that in 2010, deaths from malaria reached an all-time low of an estimated 655,000, down 25% from 2000.
Instrumental to decreasing the burden of malaria worldwide has been the continued support of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, which is the single largest donor for malaria control projects around the world. In 2009, it accounted for 65% of global funding for malaria, and to date has facilitated the distribution of more than 230 million insecticide treated bednets, 56 million of which were handed out in 2010 alone. However, as Professor Sachs explained, the Global Fund, and with it, much of the progress we have seen against malaria, is under threat.
As it stands, the Global Fund is not accepting any new grant proposals until 2014, and is searching for ways in which to ensure they can keep up with existing funding commitments. The shortfall is linked in part to the after-effects of the global economic meltdown of 2008, which caused many donors to reach less deeply into their pockets. More worrying was the report earlier this year that Sweden and Germany were suspending donations, based on concerns that 34 million US dollars had been misappropriated by projects in four African countries. Announcing that the Global Fund has zero tolerance for corruption, the head of the fund, Michel Kazatchkine, has demanded the recovery of the missing money. However, donations from Sweden and Germany will not resume until the completion of an independent audit later this year.
Should the Global Fund’s worldwide activities be stymied by allegations of corruption from a handful of countries among the 145 in which the Global Fund operates? Lives are at stake; the Global Fund is committed to reducing deaths from malaria to near zero by the year 2015, but with no new funding before 2014, time is running out. Professor Sachs urged us all at the ASTMH meeting to contact policy makers at the highest levels, such as Eric Goosby (the US Global AIDS Ambassador), Simon Bland (the chair of the Global Fund) and Margaret Chan (Director-General of the World Health Organisation), and make it clear to them that we demand continued US commitment to the Global Fund. After all, the total US pledge for the Global Fund, over the three-year period until 2013, was only 4 billion dollars. While this may seem like a lot of money, consider this: Americans spend more than 10 billion dollars on cosmetic surgery every year! So less than half of that figure, over three years, seems a small price to pay for lives saved by the Global Fund.
As 2011 comes to an end and we look ahead to 2012, I will echo Professor Sachs by asking all of you, readers of Malaria.com, to do what you can to support the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. If you are in the USA, contact your Congressman, write to your Senator, and make it clear that you support the US pledge. For our readers elsewhere in the world, your governments too should make donations, especially emerging economies like India, Brazil, China, Mexico and South Africa. Without the continued, coordinated, global efforts afforded by the Global Fund, we risk starting the New Year on the back foot in our fight against malaria.