THE NUMBERS are impossible to digest. Three million people a year die from the disease, most sufferers contract it two or three times a year and, whenever they do, are so struck down that they can neither work nor tend to their families for several weeks at a time. So if 2005 was the year of Africa, what happened to malaria?
The G8 got behind an £800 million fund to battle it; Bill Gates announced still more money to hunt down a vaccine against it; and the Global Fund set up in 2002 to finance the fight against it announced the disbursement of more moneys to countries most afflicted by it.
It was in St Paul's church - a dilapidated tin shack on the banks of the Nile in Uganda - before the Gleneagles summit in July, that I risked asking the congregation what they wanted. We were transmitting (U.K.) Channel 4 News live from Africa ahead of the G8 meeting. "Bibles, prayer books, and mosquito nets," they said with one voice - that of the pastor. They also wanted to replace the tin shack with a "proper" church.
This was a village where I had taught as a young volunteer back in the late 1960s. The insecurity and oppression of the years of Idi Amin had rendered remote Namasagali a place of refuge and safety. But under the initial economic prosperity conjured by President Museveni, Uganda has urbanised rapidly. The capital, Kampala, 200 miles away, was a city of 750,000 people in 1968. Today it tops three million. In three decades, Namasagali has retreated back to the bush. The population has dwindled, jobs have evaporated and disease, particularly malaria, has taken hold.
During our July transmission we filmed Atim, aged nine months, tossing feverishly on a table in the rudimentary village clinic. It is children of his age, and pregnant mothers, who are the frontline victims of malaria. The mosquito carrying the malarial parasite is most prone to attack its victim around one a.m.
From eradication to protection
All our lives, the war on malaria has been about eradication. In the Americas, a combination of spraying and drugs has largely succeeded, but in Africa it has failed. It has failed in part because of the scale of the disease and the lack of resources. Over the past five years, eradication has given way to a policy of personal protection. And here the mosquito net has become the key.
Phil Davis runs the insecticide division of the Japanese pharmaceutical multinational Sumitomo. He saw our report from Namasagali and offered to provide nets. Journalists and pharmaceutical companies do not mix easily. Inevitably, motives are questioned, misgivings expressed. But a few days ago, I accompanied him back to Namasagali. Mr. Davis and Sumitomo are corporate members of the Global Fund, and are drivers in the new partnership to "Roll Back Malaria."
On our way to Namasagali he wanted us to see an extraordinary project in northern Tanzania. Usa is a village of 167 people close to Arusha in northern Tanzania. A year ago each of the villagers was equipped with a long-life mosquito net. In the months since, the incidence of malaria in the village has fallen to zero. Elerehema Manga, a 60-year-old farm labourer earning £2 a week, is typical. He was given nets not only for his bed but also for his windows and the gaps in the eaves of his hut. The total cost was £8, hence the need for outside funding from agencies such as UNICEF. I asked him about his experiences of malaria. "I had it three times last year. Now, since the nets were brought in February I haven't had it once."
The source of Elerehema's malarial relief is the A to Z plastics factory in Arusha. The revolutionary net is being produced here on a truly dramatic scale. The net is made of extruded resin sold at market price by Exxon Mobil. Hardly at the forefront of altruistic repute, Exxon too is a member of the global partnership to "Roll Back Malaria." The money it makes from the Saudi-produced resin, Exxon gives back to UNICEF to buy more nets, to try to create a mosquito net market. Sumitomo has not given money. Instead it has made a free technology transfer of the secret ingredient that gives the net its long-life properties. Mosquito repellent is introduced into the resin compound which, when extruded, enables the chemical to bleed very slowly out of the yarn - so slowly that the repellent remains effective for between five and seven years. This is a remarkable advance on the standard nets, which require "reproofing" every six months. Such nets are rendered useless by a lack of funds, equipment, and organisation to respray them.
Technology transfer and money from the G8 and beyond have combined to enable Africa to start combating its number one killer disease. So far, so good. Namasagali is to be the next serious "upscaling" of net testing. A village 10 times the size of Usa it is to be netted up for a year to see whether blanket net provision can make as startling a difference on a bigger scale.
As we left Namasagali news came through of the Ugandan government's decision to go after the officials who had stolen $280,000 of Global Fund money made available to buy the long-life nets. Among those under suspicion was President Museveni's own brother-in-law. The money is there. The nets are being manufactured in a process that has the potential to be rolled out right across Africa. For malaria to be "rolled back" by 2015, the goal set by Gleneagles, the answer seems to lie with Africa itself. -
Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004