Target 'zero': Going full force against malaria in Asia

A health worker takes a blood sample to test for malaria in Cambodia. A drug-resistant strain of the disease has been found in the Greater Mekong Subregion that could spread in other parts of the world. Photo by: Gates Foundation / CC BY-NC-ND

Anti-malaria efforts have been gaining significant traction and progress in the past couple of years, particularly in Africa, with a 54 percent decline in child malaria deaths.

However, a new strain of the disease is rising halfway across the globe in Asia, and this threatens to uproot recent gains. So how can the international development community ensure sustainable progress in eradicating malaria worldwide?

By engaging everyone — particularly the private sector — while focusing on a very concrete goal that addresses the overarching issues at hand, according to Martin Edlund, CEO of Malaria No More, a New York-based advocacy group that will soon be expanding in Asia with a new office in Bangkok.

“Malaria eradication is, by definition, a global proposition — the only way to ensure zero deaths from malaria is to have zero malaria … anywhere,” he told Devex. “We believe the private sector can, and should be a key advocate in Asia.”

Edlund’s statements came on the heels of MNM’s announcement to open the Bangkok office following a recently concluded conference in Singapore in partnership with the Asian Development Bank and the Asia-Pacific Leaders Malaria Alliance. The event gathered regional leaders and several top businesses working in the region to entice them to join the efforts.

Asia-Pacific has been home to some of the bright spots in international development in recent years, but malaria remains a challenge. A drug-resistant strain of the disease has been found in the Greater Mekong Subregion that could spread in other parts of the world.

“We can’t let that happen,” Edlund said. “Malaria remains a serious public health threat and a major drain on economic growth and productivity throughout much of Asia.”

He added that “continued investment in malaria [prevention]” makes a good business case because projected profits after costs amount to more than $200 billion globally between now and 2035.

“Going on the offensive is not [just] the right thing to do. It’s the cost-effective thing to do.”

Private sector role

Malaria No More’s partnership with ADB and APLMA is focused on two goals: engaging leading private sectors in the regional development effort, and translating that involvement into political will and resource mobilization.

At the heart of this partnership, Edlund explained, is the importance of the private firms and companies in the process. Malaria’s negative effects to a country’s economy is significant, hampering continued growth and economic vitality — something that the private sector cannot (and should not) afford to ignore.

“We’re convinced that the private sector has a lot to offer, not only in terms of direct investment, but also expertise, employee engagement, [research and development] and political influence,” he explained.

The Malaria No More chief also highlighted, interestingly, the organization’s close partnership with the U.S. government, citing that tapping the region is in line with the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” plan to deepen American diplomatic and development commitments across the region.

It will be interesting to see how this will pan out, given the underlying political contexts of the plan.

“The U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative has already made significant investments in malaria and elimination in Asia, and we see the opportunity for this issue to be a big win for the U.S. and its partners,” Edlund explained.

Remaining challenges

There are, however, impending and persisting roadblocks in the fight against malaria including:

     1. Demonstrating and scaling new elimination approaches and tools.

     2. Sustaining financing and political will.

     3. Improving surveillance to track and stamp out the disease.

     4. Focusing on asymptomatic carriers of malaria or people with low levels of parasites in their bloodstream who may not be sick, but still have the potential to pass on the disease.

“The challenge is made more difficult because many of the highest-risk populations are mobile and marginalized and living in border regions,” Edlund concluded. “That’s why serious partnership and coordination between governments in the region, as well as within regional institutions, is so essential.”

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.