Bill Gates had a good point. If 2,000 children were dying every day in this country, he said, "There would be headlines. We would not rest until every one of those children was protected."
2,000 children are dying every day of malaria. But they’re far away, far from sight, in sub-Saharan Africa. We have more important things to worry about.
Bill and Melinda Gates have now promised a quarter of a billion dollars to fight the disease. In a perverse way, it doesn’t sound like a lot of money; worldwide sales of Viagra were $1.67 billion last year, and the Gates Foundation has $28 billion to spare. But in one move, they’ve almost doubled the amount of money going to defeat Africa’s second biggest killer, after HIV/AIDS.
I have no insight into what makes Mr. Gates tick, but I do have a feeling he’s open to criticism. Ten years ago he was sometimes chided for hoarding his billions; now he’s become the world’s most generous philanthropist.
His foundation has also modified its approach to problems. In the last few days our medical unit asked for comments from infectious disease specialists around the U.S.; many of them got their funding from the Gates Foundation, so Mr. Gates’ influence was obvious. But a few had criticisms.
"The foundation does NOT give funding to public health control measures or to existing public health strategies," said Dr. Peter Hotez, who chairs the programs in microbiology and tropical disease at George Washington University. "Example: the foundation does not distribute condoms in South Africa or fund health education programs. Gates is more interested in technology than in what might already be out there."
In the past that might have been true. The Gates’ interest in malaria was mostly in a technological approach: why waste time with the little stuff if there is a malaria vaccine to be engineered?
But the new pledge includes more than $50 million for "other" measures. What might those be? The low-tech ones. Jeffrey Sachs, who heads the Earth Institute at Columbia University, is quick to point out that a $5 mosquito net can work wonders, something a family can hang over the bed at night. A lot of netting will now be bought with Gates money.