Roll Back Malaria is a high impact, global network of over 500 organisations united in their resolve to defeat malaria. Last week, I joined our director of advocacy and programmes at their 24th board meeting in Geneva representing Malaria No More UK and to see the partnership in action.
It was an inspiring gathering of global experts representing the private sector, NGO's, foundations, donor countries and institutions, research and academia and malaria endemic countries themselves, committed to partnering to make a tangible difference in the 900 days that remain to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and beyond.
The Partnership's executive director, Dr Fatoumata Nafo-Traoré, summed up a key challenge facing us all:
How can we accelerate the malaria fight in a time of financial slowdown?
The backdrop to this challenge is that historic and remarkable progress has been made in the last 10 years to fight malaria. A dramatic surge in international funding and willpower to combat the disease has reaped major rewards for humanity: Deaths in Africa have been cut by a third and half of all malaria endemic countries are on track to reduce cases of malaria by 75% by 2015. However, as Dr. Rob Newman, director of the Global Malaria programme at the World Health Organisation articulated, these hard fought gains are fragile:
"A decade of progress can be lost in a single malaria transmission season. Preventing reintroduction of malaria is not just getting to finish line, but once you're there, making sure you're not knocked back".
Sri Lanka, Zanzibar and Swaziland are case in point examples of places which have come tantalisingly close to ridding themselves of malaria but then faced rapid resurgences when efforts were not sustained; all thankfully are now back on track and working hard towards elimination.
The stakes are too high to risk backsliding on the gains we have made against malaria; young children are the ones who suffer most and today a child still dies of malaria every minute. The role of global partnership is crucial in galvanising and coordinating action to bring about high level change to save lives. But sustained political will is also essential to this fight. Something the Right Hon Stephen O' Brien, British MP knows all too well.
He was announced at the board meeting as a newly appointed Global Advocate for the Roll Back Malaria Partnership. He brings a wealth of experience having relentlessly championed the issue of malaria in the UK parliament, including creating a cross-party platform for action in the All Party Parliamentary Group on Malaria and Neglected Tropical diseases. In his new role as global advocate, he will be charged with keeping malaria high on the agenda of politicians around the world.
Speaking on his appointment to a gathering of international ministers of health he cut to the chase:
"There's nothing more powerful politically than saving lives. We have proven success with malaria and the results offer value for money. We have a real opportunity to bear down on this disease and get closer to our ideal of a malaria free world".
The final day saw a gathering with many endemic country ministers of health, who shared experiences and perspectives on maintaining the global momentum. It was fascinating to hear voices representing countries on track to eliminate malaria and the factors determining their success. Swaziland in southern Africa attributes its 90% decrease in malaria cases to an integrated approach with government support, action on the ground to test, treat and track malaria at local community level. They emphasised the importance of sharing best practice with neighbouring countries as mosquitoes do not respect borders and neither should strategies to combat malaria. Although not yet, an official 'elimination' country, Zambia's Health Minister spoke boldly about their intent to wipe out deaths from the disease and an ambitious new goal: to begin work to end malaria transmission once and for all.
On the other side of the spectrum was a stark contrast as we heard accounts from health ministers whose home countries continue to be ravaged by malaria. Rob Newman described the situation as a 'focussed tragedy' as 80% of all malaria deaths occur in just 14 countries. Malaria and poverty are integrally linked so countries worst affected are also the least equipped to fight back. The minister speaking for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), one of the poorest countries in the world with the second largest malaria burden, said that the disease accounts for a third of all deaths in his country. However, they are working hard to address this with international support from countries like the UK.
Just last month, international development minister, Lynne Featherstone visited the DRC and announced significant new UK support that will help to protect approximately six million people from the disease. We applaud this vital work and ongoing local commitment to help save lives and in doing so, reduce poverty.
Roll Back Malaria partners addressed many other factors which will determine the pace of the future fight including smart use and deployment of data to test, treat and track malaria and encouraging innovative thinking at every level from funding to research and development to sharing best practice. The meetings had a high level, strategic focus but did not lose sight of real lives on the ground: Any mother or father, wherever they are, has the right to protect their child from a life threatening disease that is entirely preventable and curable.
Today, many millions of parents are still trapped by the effects of malaria and their children too ill to go to school, many simply never make it. Roll Back Malaria is playing a vital, strategic role to coordinate global efforts to make malaria no more a reality for these families. Our ongoing vigour, determination and action to make it happen will underpin what happens next.