THE BLOG

Shoot for the Stars... Especially When the Stakes Are So High

04/11/2014 23:19 GMT | Updated 04/01/2015 10:59 GMT

On Sunday, Bill Gates, speaking at a meeting of The American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in New Orleans, challenged us all to work together to accelerate progress towards a common and ambitious aim - to eradicate malaria. Eradicating malaria doesn't mean just preventing it, treating it or reducing the number of people getting it. It means totally removing it from the face of the earth so that the malaria parasite is no longer present in the blood of any people or the body of any mosquito. This is an ambitious agenda, but given the devastating history and proven ability of malaria to adapt and resist our efforts to simply contain it, it is one we cannot afford to shy away from.

Some years ago when I was living and working in rural Uganda I got malaria. As I took the long bus journey to the hospital, shivering and sweating, I was asking myself would I get there in time? Would the local hospital have the right treatment available for me? Why hadn't I been able to prevent myself getting malaria?

Looking around at the crowded bus full of women and children as we bumped along together on the seemingly endless journey to the hospital brought home to me the huge challenges malaria presents to millions around the world, most of whom are not as lucky as me... I was fortunate to have the knowledge that allowed me to recognise my symptoms and what I needed to do; the money to pay for my bus fare to the hospital and the best possible drugs; and the time to sit and wait at the hospital and lie in bed for days afterwards recovering. But million of people are not so fortunate - around half of the world's population are at risk from malaria, a disease that is killing a child every minute of every day. But malaria is preventable and curable, each one of those deaths is needless.

Which is why I agree with Bill Gates that we need to redouble our efforts now, harnessing our collective skills, experience and resources to unite behind a collective ambition and vision we all aspire to - a world free from malaria. Through my work with Malaria No More UK I have met so many people affected by, or committed to, ending malaria - from the grassroots to the global level. The woman carrying her sick, feverish child miles to a clinic in rural Ghana; the malaria research scientist in Kenya driving forward new ways to fight the disease, the Namibian community leaders striving to end suffering from malaria in their villages; the laboratory researcher at a famous tropical medicine laboratory staring determinedly into a microscope taking the fight directly to the tiny parasite; or the Head of State deeply committed to drawing together everyone in their nation to fight the disease. And these efforts are working. We have seen incredible progress since 2000, with malaria cases cut by a quarter globally and deaths amongst young children - those most affected - halved. Twenty-six countries are now on the track towards becoming malaria-free.

But, as Bill Gates rightly asserted in his speech, more is needed if we are to build on the progress we have already seen and accelerate towards zero - our ultimate goal. Eradication is a big and powerful word and there will be significant technical and political issues to address as we move forwards. But the starting block is harnessing that collective ambition. In recent years an extraordinary coalition spanning all levels, all sectors and all nations, has come together in the fight against malaria reflecting a wide spectrum of human achievement and endeavour, and also human suffering. It is exactly the kind of coalition that is needed if our species is to overcome the world's oldest disease.

Smallpox is the only disease to have been eradicated in the history of mankind. But this would never have happened without a bold act of imagination at the outset, followed by the combined efforts of committed people continuing their work both patiently and with passion, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year. Until finally the vision was attained.

In the words attributed to Goethe, the German writer, "Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it". Perhaps it is time to be brave and bold, to use big words and to further unite under our shared dream of ending malaria. The women and children who bear the brunt of this disease deserve nothing less.

Together we can make malaria no more.