Touring a malaria clinic where they sat on reed mats while coddling babies, Bill and Melinda Gates announced a $168 million grant Sunday to accelerate research into malaria, a disease that kills over a million people each year, most of them young African children.
The grant, by the world’s richest man and his wife, is the largest ever single donation towards fighting the mosquito-borne disease. Malaria is making a deadly comeback in Africa, the world’s poorest continent, as strains of the disease become increasingly resistant to treatment.
“I hope we bring a message of commitment and optimism,” said Gates, the Microsoft tycoon who has pledged to use much of his fortune to improve global health. (MSNBC is an NBC News - Microsoft joint venture)
Funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is for three research grants, with $100 million to go towards finding a vaccine, $28 million to use existing drugs to cut down the number of infections in babies and $40 million for the development of new medicines to combat drug-resistant strains.
Despite malaria’s danger, research has been critically underfunded, campaigners against the disease say. Approximately $100 million is spent annually in malaria research, a fraction of what is used to research diseases like AIDS, the only disease that kills more people than malaria.
“Investment in malaria research is far short of the need,” said Dr. Jong-Wook Lee, Director-General of the World Health Organization, in a statement. “These grants will allow many more researchers to aggressively pursue promising leads for malaria drugs and vaccines, and quickly move research from the lab to the field.”
At the Manhica Health Research Center in the rural town of Manhica about 55 miles north of the capital, mothers and their children sit on wooden benches waiting to be seen by a staff member.
Malaria is personal for Laurinda Matussi, one of the waiting mothers.
She lost one child to the disease and had two miscarriages while ill with malaria herself. Now her four-year-old son Sebastiao is sick with another bout of malaria and is about to be admitted to the center’s hospital. He sits listlessly on her lap.
Matussi’s two-year-old daughter Bete, clinging to her side, is also running a fever, one of the symptoms of the disease.
Treatment is available, but it is increasingly ineffective.
Up to 80 percent of malaria in parts of Africa is now resistant to Chloroqine, the cheapest standard drug against the disease. Other effective drugs are too expensive for most people in Africa.
Across a sandy courtyard at the center, women gather with their infants for another dose of anti-malarial drugs. The babies are part of a research program known as intermittent preventive treatment in infants, part of efforts to use existing malarial drugs to reduce the rate of malaria among young children.
Three times during their first year of life, the infants receive malaria drugs when they come in for their routine immunizations. One recent study showed that such intervention can reduce incidence of malaria by 59 percent.