Oct. 31, 2005 -- The massive scale of the malaria epidemic is so hard to grasp that only far-fetched statistics bring it life.
"Globally, the death rate is equal to seven jumbo jets, full of children, crashing every day," is how Malaria Foundation International describes the epidemic on its web site.
Or, in more general terms, in a single year, malaria causes at least one million deaths and sickens between 300 to 500 million people -- the majority of which live in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Health Organization.
Yet, in terms of funding, the mosquito-borne disease receives a scant attention from the world's governments, not-for-profit organizations and companies. For example, malaria receives .3 percent of the world's research and development investments, although its impact on global health exceeds that by at least 10 times, according to the Malaria R&D Alliance.
It's a problem that philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates are trying to change. Along with previous pledges, today the couple announced three grants totaling $258.3 million for malaria control and prevention efforts.
"In the rich world, (drug development) has been left to the private sector and it does that very well," said Gates, chairman of the software company Microsoft, in a media briefing last week. "For the developing world, that's largely been a vacuum."
Malaria is caused by four types of parasites that are transmitted through human blood. Like viruses and bacteria, the parasites have become resistant to certain forms of medication. As a result of that and poor infection control, it has resurged in nations where mosquitoes thrive year-round, particularly the equatorial regions of Africa.
A malaria infection starts about 9 to 14 days after being bitten and usually causes a high fever, headache, vomiting and other flu-like symptoms, according to the WHO. If left untreated (and it usually is), it destroys red blood cells and can clog the arteries that carry blood to the brain. It is particularly lethal among children.
While some of the money will be used to boost efforts to increase the use of insecticide-treated bed nets, it's important that the funds also be used to develop new drugs, said Melinda Moree, director of the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative, at the briefing.
"We know we have to use the tools available to save kids' lives, but we also have to continuously invest (in drug development)," she said. "The one thing we've proven about malaria is that once we have thought it was conquered, something changes and it comes back again...Truly, it's one of the challenges of global health."
The grants are: $106.7 million to the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative to work with drug company GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals and African investigators to complete testing for a malaria vaccine; $100 million to the Medicines for Malaria Venture to accelerate the development of several other drugs; and $50.7 million to the Innovative Vector Control Consortium to fast-track development of improved insecticides and other mosquito control methods.
The announcement comes a day before the 3-day Time Global Health Summit in New York City, where malaria is expected to be a major topic of discussion.