Such thoughts swirled in my head in the wake of the news about Alima. They were somewhat despairing. In time, though, I became convinced that Alima's short life was long enough to show that action and inaction each have consequences, that lives hang in the balance when it comes to the generosity and commitment with which we pursue our work. It was long enough to make me aware of the fact that Alima and her classmates were among the most voiceless beings on the planet. Children in their situation around the world are so nearly silent and invisible that there is no economic market for delivering to them the basic goods and services that we take for granted and that they desperately need just to stay alive. Given the huge up-front investment that drug and vaccine development require, there's no profit to be found on a continent where people -- potential customers -- earn less, on average, than $2 a day. When economic markets fail, the gap is sometimes filled by political markets, or governments responding to a need. When economic and political markets both fail, as they have failed Africa's children, only charity or philanthropy remain as a last resort.
While I was thinking about the lessons that Alima's life signified, I began to wonder who, in the developed world, might be trying to help children like Alima and her classmates. Was there anyone dedicated, determined, or driven enough to want to try to cure a parasitic disease like malaria, which ravages not New Jersey and California but countries and peoples continents away, who have neither the money to pay for treatment nor the ability even to ask for it? Was there anyone who was possessed by the idea, as I had become, that malaria had to be defeated?
Victory in such a battle does not come easily. Drug and vaccine development requires a huge amount of investment in both time and money, and even those who have both must overcome an incredible number of obstacles.
It was in 2004 that I first began to really think about the teams of researchers working on the malaria vaccine and the specific hurdles facing them. The more I learned about the nature of the disease, the more I realized that conquering it would take more than just time and money, more even than a sense of purpose and persistence. It required a moral vision and imagination: a person or a team stubbornly dedicated to the idea that no child's death should ever be ignored as "inevitable" or "senseless," and abundantly blessed with practical wisdom to tackle a problem that has baffled others.
I asked myself what kind of people, with what qualities of character, would take on a challenge as daunting as climbing Mount Everest was before Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, or walking on the moon before Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. Ending malaria may be less visually dramatic than a moon landing, and the beneficiaries -- people like Alima's classmates -- are less conspicuous. That's exactly why it takes a very unusual person to take on a challenge like this one.