Bill Gates says innovation will beat malaria

Oct 19, 2011

Technology can triumph over one of the oldest plagues of humanity. That was the underlying theme of Bill Gates’ pep talk to malaria researchers gathered this week in Seattle:

"A key reason I think we will succeed is that we have the ability to innovate. This is really behind most of the improvements in the human condition. Innovation is one of  the most powerful forces in the world. 

That’s also a tidy summary of the Gates Foundation’s approach – which is to fight diseases by investing heavily in scientific inventions, such as vaccines, cheaper blood tests, or new mosquito repelants.

Bill and Melinda Gates convened a special three-day forum for world leaders in the fight against malaria. The disease still kills nearly 800,000  people a year in the tropics, although it was eliminated from the U-S decades ago.

It's a treatable disease; if you get infected as a tourist, you can be cured with modern drugs. But the drugs are expensive and have proven impractical to use in countries where malaria is rampant.

Melinda Gates used a photo of sick young boy she met on a visit to Tanzania to show how those drugs are now spreading:

"He's two years old. And when his mother brought him into hospital, he was unconscious with malaria. But he's alive today because he received the treatment he needed."

The boy’s mother can attest to progress -- since her daughter had died a few years earlier from malaria, when the drugs were not available.

The controversy over Gates' approach

Under the Gates' leadership, the world has changed it's approach to malaria in recent years. Instead of striving to simply contain and manage the disease in countries that are poor and loaded with other problems, the new approach calls for trying to eliminate the parasite from all countries.

The forum has illustrated why it’s so complex to set a goal of eliminating malaria.  A few of the factors include:

  • Malaria is caused by a parasite that spends part of its life in mosquitoes and another part in humans.
  • To treat the sick, you need a health system in place. 
  • The parasite keeps evolving resistance to drugs. 
  • The mosquitoes that carry it behave differently across the world. 

In the past, malaria was on the decline, only to come back when international funders moved on. That's a real risk this time, too.

How can you keep vigilant with just four scientists?

African scientist Fred Binka, of the University of Ghana, told the forum that there aren't enough scientists and public health officials to monitor malaria or mosquitoes.

"My country has only four entomologists" in the entire country, he said.

KPLU's Humanosphere blogger Tom Paulson has a more detailed analysis, including 5 Reasons to be concerned about the malaria goals. He writes:

Many of those attending the Malaria Forum this week were here for the first such meeting, in 2007, when Bill and Melinda Gates called for eradicating malaria. That upset a lot of experts in the malaria community who felt it was setting them up for failure, again, which would in the long run undermine the more modest, life-saving efforts aimed at just reducing the disease burden.

The Seattle foundation is the world’s wealthiest. But the cost of delivering the treatments to poor countries, especially in Africa – and to keep tabs on the mosquitoes for decades to come – is too much even for Gates. Those donations depend on public support and governments around the world.