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Press conference on World Malaria Day

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While immense progress had been made in the fight against malaria over the last five years, the goal of near-zero deaths from the highly preventable and treatable disease by 2015 still faced many hurdles, Ray Chambers, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Malaria, said today.

Speaking at a Headquarters press conference to mark World Malaria Day, Mr. Chambers reported a 50 per cent drop in mortality from malaria in 11 sub-Saharan African countries, where 95 per cent of such deaths occurred, noting that Zanzibar, part of the United Republic of Tanzania, had already reached the zero-mortality mark. The provision of bed nets and/or residual spraying covered close to 700 million people in the entire sub-Saharan region, while diagnostic tools and medication had also been made available, said Mr. Chambers, who was accompanied by Awa Marie Coll-Seck, Executive Director of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, and singer/songwriter Mandy Moore, an Ambassador for Population Services International.

“Nothing like this has been accomplished in a major disease in our lifetime,” he said, crediting such partners as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Bank, the President’s Malaria Initiative and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development with having supported the many achievements already realized.

Underscoring the recent global emphasis on maternal and child health, he said the fight against malaria was an “early win” in efforts to reduce maternal and child mortality. Moreover, the return on investing in sub-Saharan Africa’s fight against malaria, which cost an estimated $40 billion against the region’s gross domestic product, was immense. Indeed, the $5 billion invested over the last several years had already led to several hundred thousand fewer deaths a year. Moving forward, there would be a need for another several billion dollars a year, a greater emphasis on diagnostics and treatment, as well as replacement bed nets. Welcoming Harvard University’s decision to take a leadership role in fighting malaria — an announcement to be made later today — he predicted that it would be a significant step forward.

Ms. Coll-Seck recalled that, as a doctor in Senegal, she had cared for so many children dying from malaria that they had been everywhere — lying in beds and on tables. Yet now when she visited Senegal and other African countries, she saw empty beds. While that “amazing change” provided visible proof of the impact that the fight against malaria had already had, the gains were fragile, she cautioned. “We need to maintain the work we are doing and push for more leadership and ownership from countries,” she stressed, highlighting the African Leaders Malaria Alliance in that regard.

Ms. Moore said that on her recent trip to the Central African Republic as part of the United Nations Foundation’s “Nothing but Nets” campaign she had met a mother who had lost two children to malaria in a single month. After receiving a net, the mother had spoken stoically and eloquently about how she would now be able to protect the rest of her family, thus embodying a true champion of the anti-malaria fight. Now back in the United States, Ms. Moore emphasized her determination to spread the stories of millions of similar mothers. “We all can be champions and work together to fight this fight and end malaria deaths by 2015.”

Asked about the chances of making the anti-malaria fight sustainable, Mr. Chambers said that with the formation of the African Leaders Malaria Alliance several years ago, African Heads of State were taking greater responsibility. The Alliance would soon become the principal organization overseeing the fight, he predicted.

Responding to a request for a more detailed timeline on reducing malaria deaths, Ms. Coll-Seck stressed that eradication was the goal, even as she acknowledged that it would take time and would not be easy to achieve. Among other challenges was the need to maintain sufficient financing levels and to use funds more efficiently. Other hurdles included establishing and maintaining information systems, enhancing supply-chain management and addressing human resource gaps.

Providing information on the development of a malaria vaccine, Ms. Coll-Seck said the current version had an efficacy rate of only 50 to 60 per cent, but research into a 100 per cent effective vaccine was ongoing. While predominantly targeting malarial strains prevalent in Africa, research was also being conducted into a vaccine targeting those prevailing in Asia, she added, cautioning, however, that the kinds of preventive drugs used by travellers were not financially feasible for people living in malaria-endemic countries. Furthermore, the Roll Back Malaria Partnership did not promote prevention for adults.

Asked about the current number of deaths from malaria in Africa, Mr. Chambers said the number had fallen from 1 million dying around the world to 750,000, based on the last WHO report. India, with roughly 50,000 malaria deaths per year was the country with the largest number outside Africa, he added.

In response to several questions about the need to raise awareness of the threat pose by malaria, he said the WHO was considering a massive global campaign in the knowledge that the higher the level of awareness, the more funds would be made available to fight the disease.

To a question about reports of drugs and funds missing from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, he suggested they had been blown out of proportion. Of the billions distributed by the Global Fund, a small fraction was found to have been misused and the Fund was taking prudent steps to minimize future misuse. He said that for his own part, he was encouraging all countries to continue contributing to the Fund, while also encouraging African Governments to ensure that the funds reached their intended destination. “We’d like no money to go awry, but then reality sets in at some point.”

Asked about her efforts to spread the word, Ms. Moore noted tonight’s opening of The Champions to End Malaria photo exhibition, which would be on display through 22 May in the Visitors’ Lobby of United Nations Headquarters. It could also be seen online at: http://champions.nothingbutnets.net.

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