NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Philanthropist Bill Gates says he wants to end malaria in his lifetime and will give more money toward that goal, part of his broader fight against tropical diseases that are getting unusual public attention because of the Ebola epidemic.
In an interview with The Associated Press and in a speech Sunday at a global health conference in New Orleans, the Microsoft co-founder said his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation would increase its malaria program budget by 30 percent, to more than $200 million per year. That’s on top of the foundation’s other donations to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
Small steps won’t get the job done, and scientists don’t have all the tools they need to eradicate malaria, Gates said.
His plan includes developing a drug or vaccine to purge the malaria parasite in people who carry it without showing symptoms – a “human reservoir” that helps spread the disease.
“I really do believe that malaria can be eradicated in my lifetime,” said Gates, who just turned 59.
Gates spoke at the annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, a conference that usually gets little public notice, about diseases often referred to as “neglected.”
That is not the case this year. On Wednesday, Louisiana officials created a stir by asking the 3,500 people registered for the conference to stay away if they have been to certain West African countries or have had contact with an Ebola patient in the last 21 days, the maximum incubation period for Ebola.
Conference organizers called the stance an overreaction to Ebola fears, and said it would prevent some scientists from presenting studies on the outbreak, which has killed about 5,000 Africans this year.
In all, Gates said his foundation will commit more than $500 million this year to fight malaria, pneumonia, and diarrheal and parasitic diseases in poor countries. Here are some he discussed.
The conference comes “at a pivotal moment in the history of global health” because of the world’s largest outbreak of Ebola, Gates said. He and his wife have pledged $50 million to help contain it and for research on treatments, rapid tests and vaccines. Another Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, has pledged $100 million, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, $25 million.
The global response to Ebola initially stumbled and revealed flaws in our health systems, Gates said. Since then, some countries and groups have helped, but much more is needed, he said.
“We’re likely in the next several decades to have an epidemic that’s more transmissible than this Ebola epidemic,” so bolstering health systems in all countries and ensuring investment in drugs and vaccines is key, he said.
It kills more than 600,000 people each year, mostly children in Africa but also in Asia, Latin America and other areas.
It is caused by parasites spread through the bite of infected mosquitoes. In areas where the disease is common, people can develop partial immunity – they carry the parasite but don’t get sick, and mosquitoes who bite them become infected and then spread the disease when they bite others.
Efforts to control the disease, such as bed nets to prevent mosquito bites, must continue but “the only way to stop malaria is to end it forever,” Gates said.
His plan includes $156 million over five years to the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative to develop vaccines that prevent mosquitoes from infecting people and vice versa.
Dr. Chris Plowe, a malaria expert at the University of Maryland’s Center for Vaccine Development and incoming president of the tropical medicine group, said targeting silent infection is key because “if you want to eradicate or eliminate malaria, you have to get rid of all the parasites.”
The idea of ending malaria in 20 to 40 years “is faster than most people expect,” but a good goal, Plowe said.
Gates called polio eradication “my top priority,” noting the viral disease remains endemic in three countries – Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He cited progress: Polio was eliminated in India earlier this year, and as of early September, Nigeria had confirmed only six wild poliovirus cases this year. There is a good chance of getting the polio case count down to zero for the entire continent of Africa, he said.
The mosquito-borne disease, also known as breakbone fever for the pain it causes, has spread from a few countries a few decades ago to more than 100 today, including the southern United States. An experimental vaccine seems to prevent most severe disease and hospitalizations. Details of a major study on it will be presented at the conference on Monday, and Gates said his foundation would work to build on that work and make a vaccine available to all who need it.
Another mosquito-borne disease, chikungunya causes fever and extremely painful joints. It spread to the Caribbean last year after expanding in Africa and South Asia, and in July, the first locally acquired case in the U.S. was documented in Florida. It’s an important field for research and vaccine development, Gates said.