Jan 16, 2006
Some weeks ago, an international congress devoted to the struggle against malaria was held in Cameroon.
The organization Doctors Without Borders explained, “Today there are four times more cases and three times more deaths due to malaria than in the 1970s.” Nevertheless, it’s been known how to combat this disease for more than a century. Malaria is spread by a parasite transmitted by the bite of a female mosquito. In rich countries, where the disease had been a serious problem some decades ago, it was successfully eradicated by building drains, by drying out swamps and by the massive use of insecticides.
But such expensive efforts are never carried out in underdeveloped countries. As a result, malaria threatens 40% of the world’s population, almost 2½ billion people. It is the most widespread disease in the world. Almost three million people die of malaria each year, more than die from any other disease, including AIDS.
And the people in the poorest countries suffer the most. For example, malaria kills many in Haiti, the poorest country in the Caribbean. Ninety% of malaria cases in the world are found in sub-Saharan Africa. The European and U.S. colonial powers only took action against malaria when it affected their own interests. During the building of the Panama Canal, malaria killed so many workers, even some engineers, that it threatened the completion of the project. Massive cleanup works were able to combat the disease, allowing the canal to be finished. Later, when U.S. soldiers faced malaria in Viet Nam and in the Far East, a great deal of money was put into research against malaria.
In the 1950s, anti-malaria medicines appeared. They are less effective today since the emergence of resistant strains of the parasite. But another medicine, ACT (Artemisinin Combination Therapy), based on a Chinese plant, assures recovery in 90% of cases. The World Health Organization recommended its use in 2002.
Artemisinin is marketed by Novartis, a pharmaceutical company that makes only small quantities of it, explaining it takes six month to produce. But according to professor Yu Youyou, the inventor of ACT, Novartis has a very different reason: “The slowness of recognition of my discovery is explained by the fact that malaria is a disease of the poor.” The poor don’t have the means to pay for this medicine, because it costs about two dollars compared to fifty cents for the old treatment. In sub-Saharan Africa, half of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. For these millions of Africans, this difference is the price of life. Given the cost, ACT remains virtually unused in African hospitals.
But as the CEO of Novartis said, “Profit is absolutely essential. It’s like the air we breathe.” This statement completely explains why malaria continues to kill in the poor countries.