Friday, November 9, 2012

Joining Forces to Fight Malaria in Asia-Pacific

I've been in the business long enough to be a skeptic when it comes to conferences and, often, the bigger the conference the more dubious I am of it achieving a genuine result for children. But here I am in sparkling Sydney, Australia for what has turned out to be an impressive conference on fighting malaria.

Malaria accounts for 7% of all child deaths globally. In the Asia-Pacific region, there were 30 million cases of malaria in 2010 and 42,000 deaths. Malaria’s impact on the health and future wellbeing of the region’s children is huge. It’s cost to development…massive.

Given this, I was grateful, if skeptical, when I got the invitation from the Australian government and AusAID  to attend the Malaria 2012 Conference. But this meeting turned into one of those rare occasions when I was both thrilled with the amazingly thorough preparation and very frank discussions, and also inspired by the experts and energized by the fact that we actually made potentially huge progress.

The conference brought together government Ministers, donors, business leaders, NGOs and civil society, all of whom worked hard to make the outcomes of the meeting concrete and not theoretical. This is critical because we have documented cases in Asia of malaria becoming resistant to the world’s most effective treatment – Artemisinin . This is potentially disastrous for the people of the region and the resistance could spread beyond Asia threatening the progress that has been made in reducing the death toll from this disease. Currently, cases of Artemisinin-resistant malaria  have been found in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam.

A mother caring for her child sick with malaria outside Port Moresby, PNG
©UNICEF/PAPA2006-00022/

So what can be done and what did this gathering accomplish? Well, for one, we got clear agreement between health experts and governments that reducing malaria by 75% by 2015 can only be achieved if there is transparent and accountable political commitment. To promote this, governments have agreed to establish the Asia-Pacific Leaders Malaria Alliance to drive and report on progress and promote accountability at all levels. The Alliance will also help push action across sectors such as housing, education, agriculture, and environment, and will actively work with the private sector and communities. A good start!

It was also clear that there is a substantial funding gap for fighting malaria. Having AusAID host the meeting and bring many other international donors was essential. It resulted in agreement to have the technical and funding partners at the conference take on the job of identifying financial shortfalls and commodity gaps for meeting the agreed targets, and to develop a strategic plan to address the gaps, including options for sustainable financing mechanisms, both global and regional.

There was also agreement that we can’t fight malaria, especially in the face of Artemisinin-resistance, without helping countries in the region to strengthen their health systems. Malaria is more and more concentrated among the poor and those in rural areas without easy access to health services, inequity in health services leads to inequity in susceptibility to malaria. The constant specter of malaria cases is actually evidence of poor development, and while bednets and sprays are critical, without strong responsive health systems, the battle against malaria cannot be won.  Strong health systems that prevent malaria mean that there are fewer cases that need treatment and thus treatment can be better quality and more equitably accessed.

While all of this may sound like the same old political commitment generated by many global conferences, I left feeling that there is enough political will, donor commitment, and agreement on what has to happen next for us to beat back malaria. I left Sydney feeling very confident this meeting in Oz will lead to real benefits for children in Asia and the Pacific – not just in lives saved, but in securing better health care and more sustainable development.

So....from a beautiful, malaria-free, country, a real commitment and practical actions for the Asia-Pacific!

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