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msnbc.com

Every year, as many as three million people die from it, about 90 percent of them in Africa. A child succumbs to it every 20 seconds. The statistics on malaria, still the greatest killer disease in Africa, are overwhelming. Despite the enormity of the problem, the world spends only $2 billion a year to fight malaria, a fraction of what is spent on AIDS.

The World Health Organization is now launching a major initiative, as part of its “Roll Back Malaria” program, to encourage pharmaceutical companies to invest more money in research and a vaccine.

Some scientists contend that push is misguided, because pharmaceutical companies have no financial incentive to find a vaccine. Most Africans would not be able to afford it. Instead, they are pursuing behavioral studies that seek to prevent the spread of malaria, rather than cure it.

At ICIPE, the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology, in Nairobi, scientists have discovered a number of plants indigenous to Kenya can help deter mosquitoes. “If people could put these plants in their homes to prevent getting bitten, it may help reduce the spread of malaria,” says Bart Knols, an entomologist at the center.

And new research at the University of Florida shows that insects look for “victims” with high levels of vitamin B and cholesterol. According to Jerry Butler, an entomology professor, mosquitoes have such a sophisticated sense of smell that they can detect tiny amounts of chemicals transmitted from the body into the air from 40 miles away.

That suggests that bathing regularly may lower the chances of getting malaria. However, the research - so far - has done little for the millions in Africa who contract it each year.

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