Interview with Ray Chambers, leading UN efforts to raise awareness about malaria

Ray Chambers, UN Special Envoy for Malaria

14 April 2010 – Since 2008 Ray Chambers has served as the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Malaria, leading an international, multi-agency campaign to raise awareness and funds to combat malaria, one of the world’s biggest killers.

Mr. Chambers is a United States businessman and philanthropist who co-founded Malaria No More, a non-governmental organization (NGO) established four years ago. He is also the Founding Chairman of two other non-profit organizations, the Points of Light Foundation and America's Promise – The Alliance for Youth.

As the UN Special Envoy for Malaria, he has voiced his dedication to trying to reduce the number of malaria deaths in the parts of the world where the disease is endemic to near zero by 2015.

UN News Centre: How did you first get involved in the efforts to fight malaria?

Ray Chambers: I got involved in malaria about four years ago when I co-founded a non-profit organization called Malaria No More and our goal was to raise awareness and to raise sufficient funding to try and cover everybody in Africa at risk of malaria with long-term insecticide-treated bed nets and spraying where applicable. A little over two years ago the Secretary-General asked if I would become the first Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Malaria, a position I accepted with honour.

UN News Centre: But what led you to take up theIf we stay vigilant, if we accomplish our goal this year, we are predicting zero deaths from or near-zero deaths from malaria by 2015 cause of malaria in the first place?

Ray Chambers: Jeff [Sachs, a Special Adviser to the Secretary-General] and I had both returned from Africa, from separate places, and he was showing photos from a village in Malawi and I thought these angelic children were sleeping. I said: ‘Aren’t they cute?’ And Jeff said: ‘You don’t understand. They were all in malaria comas at the time of the photo and they all subsequently died.’ I will never forget that image.

I learned that malaria was preventable. I met with a number of scientists and leaders and everybody said we have the tools and technology to eliminate deaths from malaria. We can’t eradicate malaria without something like a vaccine and they said the only thing remaining was the will.

So when we started Malaria No More, part of our objectives was to try and help, inspire, develop [and] motivate the will in a way that could raise enough money to buy enough bed nets and spraying to cover the entire endemic population. That’s what we are on task to do by the end of this year.

UN News Centre: On your appointment as Special Envoy you spoke of a “genocide of apathy” about malaria. Two years on, do you sense any difference?

Ray Chambers: I think we’ve really raised a great deal of awareness so that people understand what a killer malaria has been. We are guessing, based on the data we have, that malaria may have killed as many 50 million children and upwards of a million children last year alone. And recognizing that the scientists have been saying that we have the tools and technology but still allowing so many children to die was where the ‘genocide of apathy’ emanated from.

Working together, the World Bank, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, led by the United Nations and the World Health Organization, the Rollback Malaria partnership and the Gates Foundation and UNICEF – we are at the point where over $4 billion has been raised in the last several years and we responding to Secretary-General’s call to cover all 700 million people at risk of malaria with mosquito nets by the end 2010.

The energy that has been placed into, the raising of awareness and visibility from the [United States television show] American Idol – Idol Gives Back, which will be on again next week on 21 April, to the massive Twitter audience we now have engaged in our malaria [campaign] – I don’t see any major apathy remaining.

UN News Centre: What would you say is the most effective way of rolling back malaria?  Is there one way or is it a combination of different approaches?

Ray Chambers: I think is a combination. But by far the most significant intervention is sleeping under an insecticide-treated mosquito net. A mosquito generally bites after 10 o’clock at night. A net can accommodate two adults or three children under it and when the mosquito lands of the net it dies because of the insecticide. We do use spraying in certain places to complement the nets and of course the availability of the proper medication is quite important as well.

UN News Centre: What are some of the challenges you have faced in the Counting Malaria Out campaign?

Ray Chambers: Well it has been raising the visibility. In a country like the United States almost everybody knows somebody who has or has had AIDS, but hardly anybody knows someone who has been killed by malaria. So we’ve used all the social media and other marketing tools to raise awareness which in turn helped us raise an unprecedented amount of money. Those hurdles were large but, thanks to the cooperation of all of the partners, we are almost over those hurdles.

Working on each endemic country to build awareness, to help build political will, to encourage African leaders to act as one… has been very significant. And then we do run into logistical problems in countries where there aren’t roads – how do the nets get distributed.

UN News Centre: What have been some of your personal experiences when you have travelled to Africa, a continent with a large malaria burden?

Ray Chambers: I have made a number trips to Africa and will be going in several weeks again. I have gone out to some of the remote villages in different countries and actually distributed nets to the children and their mothers. I was struck by how much they knew about the value of what a bed net could do to save their children’s lives and the children were acutely aware of what a bed net can do to save them from malaria.

I was struck by the warm welcome, how grateful and how hopeful the people and the children throughout Africa have been with our malaria efforts and how supportive and welcoming African leadership has been across the board, notwithstanding so many other challenges that the people are facing. There is recognition of what bed nets can do.

[African countries] lose so much not just because of health-care costs, but because of absenteeism from work [because of malaria]. Once we engage with the leadership of each country they have been very supportive. The African leaders’ malaria alliance is now issuing bulk purchase orders on behalf of the African nations where they are acting as one instead of each country having to negotiate their own separate price and condition for the nets. So I couldn’t be more pleased with what I have experienced in Africa.

On the other side of that spectrum, there so nothing so sad or as tugging at your heart as seeing a teenage mother sitting on the hospital bed with a two- or three-year-old child knowing that he is not likely to recover from malaria. Contrasting that, Margaret Chan, Director of the World Health Organization (WHO); Tachi Yamada, the head of Global Health Program for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and I went to Zanzibar among other places in August. Zanzibar has a paediatrics ward in its main hospital of 12 beds that was regularly filled with children, two to a bed, sick with malaria, some of whom died. They began to use bed nets in earnest four years ago and when we visited that hospital we asked to go to the paediatrics ward and we were stunned to see all 12 beds were empty. It brought tears to all three of our eyes.

UN News Centre: What will be your message on World Malaria Day on 25 April?

Ray Chambers: We will speak about the incredible progress that has been made to date, including an example like Zanzibar, but we still have to fill a funding gap to reach the goal by the end of this year. Once we reach that goal we must be ever diligent and vigilant after 2010 so that malaria doesn’t spring up in another place. We have to keep replacing bed nets and we have to be aware of the malaria parasites developing resistance to the medication or the mosquito developing resistance to the insecticide on the net. If we stay vigilant, if we accomplish our goal this year, we are predicting zero deaths from or near zero deaths from malaria by 2015.

UN News Centre: What have been your experiences working to combat malaria within the UN system?

Ray Chambers: I believe very strongly and with heartfelt passion that if we keep working all together as hard and as cooperatively as we’ve been working, we will have taken a disease that had become a genocide and virtually eliminate deaths from it until a vaccine comes along. This is really unprecedented in our lifetimes and it should encourage us with regard to maternal health, child mortality, HIV/AIDS, TB [tuberculosis] and other diseases. I think malaria can stand up as an example of just what progress we can make by all working together.

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