By John M. Bridgeland, Vice Chairman of Malaria No More
American leadership can make the difference between life and death. I’ve witnessed firsthand how Americans saved lives in villages across Africa.
While visiting a public health facility 13 years ago in Mukarange, the capital of the Kayonza District in eastern Rwanda, I saw unwrapped mosquito bed nets in corners, shelves empty of life-saving treatments, and filthy rooms for patients. When I asked a doctor what was wrong with the baby he was holding, he reported that she had cerebral malaria and would die in the next 24 hours. Malaria topped the list of diseases in Mukarange.
Ninety kilometers down the road at another health facility in Rukara, bed nets were hung over patient beds, shelves were fully stocked with treatments, and the facility was pristine. Officials there reported that malaria cases were down so significantly that there had not been a malaria death in six months. They cited the success of a “comprehensive approach” to malaria – the distribution of long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets that families sleep under to prevent malaria-carrying mosquitoes from biting them, drugs that treat the disease and protect pregnant women exposed to malaria, and spraying homes with insecticides.
My visit came on the heels of an international community that was mobilizing to tackle this disease that was needlessly killing 1.2 million people a year — mostly women and children under the age of five in Africa. President George W. Bush had just announced a new President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) to commit U.S. resources and expertise to significantly reduce mother and childhood deaths from malaria and help reduce extreme poverty in 15 targeted Sub-Saharan African countries where malaria is most prevalent.
Since then, with bipartisan support from the Congress, U.S. investments in the malaria fight increased over the years, recently expanding to 27 countries and improving the lives of more than 500 million people a year.
The U.S. commitment sparked a new level of coordination to tackle this fully preventable and treatable disease. Other governments, multilateral institutions (including the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the World Bank, a new UN Special Envoy for Malaria), and nonprofit and private sector organizations stepped up to set clear goals, align efforts, and work together to save millions of lives. Forty-nine African heads of state would form a new alliance to end malaria by 2030.
U.S. leadership led to a civic awakening. Bed nets that protected the most vulnerable from a deadly mosquito bite became the symbol that catalyzed civic engagement among the American people – with the familiar call “spend $10, buy a bed net, save two lives.” The American people contributed hundreds of millions of dollars for bed nets to help save lives.
Almost two decades later, this globally-coordinated effort has paid off. Thanks to bipartisan congressional support across multiple U.S. administrations, the global fight to end malaria has been one of the most effective health initiatives in the world. More than seven million lives have been saved from malaria and more than a billion malaria cases have been prevented, with huge implications for children who can now go to school, adults who can stay in the workforce, businesses with stable employment, economies that are stronger, and health systems that are more effective. This historic success has turned global sights on ending this disease for good.
In Zanzibar, a region of Tanzania that has eliminated malaria, I heard a stern warning. The Minister of Health said, “I have seen this movie four times before in my lifetime – the world mobilizes against malaria and the world forgets. This time, it is a blockbuster movie, but I worry the world will forget again and a generation of young people will have grown up with no immunity to malaria.”
His warning should still be heard. While progress has been stunning, 435,000 people died from malaria in 2017 and a child still dies every two minutes from the disease.
We have the tools and strategies to end malaria. We can now test and treat malaria in minutes, not days. With better data, we are targeting communities in regions and countries where malaria is most severe – stretching the value of each dollar invested. And year after year, we count on the value of these investments to enhance diplomatic relationships, economies, and shared peace.
The time is ripe to launch a powerful second act to end this disease for good. With continued leadership and support in the Congress, the U.S. can continue to make the difference between life and death for millions of people. It’s time to finish the job on malaria.
John M. Bridgeland organized the White House Summit on Malaria and is a founding member and Vice Chairman of Malaria No More. He served on President Obama’s White House Council for Community Solutions and as President George W. Bush’s Director of Domestic Policy.