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Let's get to work

The Guardian (UK)

25 April 2008

By Ban Ki-moon

As far as security details go, mine is pretty unflappable. They are seldom fazed by unruly crowds or post-conflict hotspots. But travelling in East Africa one day last year, I stepped into a swarm of mosquitoes. From the expressions on their faces, I realised that close protection was no match for this unarmed threat the size of a speck.

Malaria is a relentless killer. In the time it takes to read this article, six more children will die of the disease. Each year, as many as half a billion people catch malaria. More than a million die.

Experts say that malaria slows economic growth in Africa by up to 1.3 percent a year, holding back development and costing tens of billions of dollars in lost productivity. In countries where the disease is particularly acute, it's not unusual for malaria to consume as much as 40% of government health budgets. This has a crippling effect on social health, welfare and development.

This is unacceptable - all the more so because malaria is preventable and treatable.

The international community has beaten back deadly pandemics before. Smallpox has been eradicated. We are currently writing the final chapter in polio eradication. We may not be able to entirely wipe out malaria right away. But we can control it and dramatically reduce its toll, if we act together.

Today, the international community is marking the first World Malaria Day. On this day, the UN family and its partners are launching an all-out international initiative to expand our fight against malaria.

This is the first time the international community is considering a control effort at full scale. While past efforts have yielded some successes, the lack of resources for universal coverage forced us to largely restrict our focus to young children and pregnant mothers - the two groups most at risk of dying. We saved lives, but we also left a large reservoir of people unprotected against the disease, which served only to keep it alive and spreading within the population. As a result, malaria remains endemic throughout sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Success in the fight against malaria requires only the widespread distribution of bednets and medication, coupled with appropriate indoor residual spraying. It costs less than $10 to purchase and distribute insecticide-treated bednets that last for up to five years. With that simple investment, governments provide a five-year shield. Recipients can go to school, work and contribute productively to society.

It's hard to imagine $10 better spent. For proof, note how Ethiopia has cut its malaria death toll among children by half over the past three years. Rwanda reduced deaths among children by two-thirds. Both countries distributed millions of long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets and provided anti-malarial drugs to those in need.

Now we need to step up action in all affected countries. That is why, together with Roll Back Malaria and my new special envoy for malaria, Ray Chambers, I am putting forward a bold but achievable vision. Our aim is to stop malaria deaths by ensuring universal coverage in Africa by the end of 2010.

This means providing all of the population at risk in Africa with long-lasting insecticide-treated bednets and indoor household residual spraying. Similarly, all public health facilities must have access to effective malaria treatment and diagnosis. And there has to be special treatment for pregnant women in regions where the incidence of malaria is high. Delivery channels, especially through community health workers, must be strengthened and expanded. And with so many people still dying from malaria, successful research and development for longer-term control, elimination and eradication efforts are also critical.

Africa is the region where most malaria deaths occur, but we can't stop there. Malaria mosquitoes, like other problems in our globalised world, recognise no borders.

Resources have to be consistent so that countries can not only plan anti-malaria activities but sustain them over the years. Traditional partners such as the World Bank, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and donor nations must come up with funding, supported by the private sector. Endemic countries need to put in place plans to achieve universal coverage, and donors must respond with timely and predictable funding in the next few months.

Ending malaria deaths can breathe new life into our broader campaign to stamp out poverty, once and for all. It is one of the key Millennium Development Goals - the vision adopted by all the world's governments for building a better world in the twenty-first century. We have the resources and the know-how. But we have less than 1,000 days before the end of 2010. So let's get to work.

Ban  Ki-moon is the Secretary-General of the United Nations