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BW Businessworld

Managing Malaria

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It killed the mighty Genghis Khan, hastened the fall of Rome and stopped Alexander the Great in India in 326 BC. Malaria has been humanity's oldest and most widespread disease. It is almost as old as life itself and far older than humankind. More than 3 billion people lived with it, every year 500 million suffer from it, and about a million die from it. That is why it does not come as a surprise when Time magazine's Africa bureau chief Alex Perry writes in Lifeblood that much of human history can be told through the story of malaria; just as it is in the annals of medicine.

Today, there are 450 different species of the malaria parasite Plasmodium and one is identified every few years. It is the world's most contagious disease, with a reproductive number of 10 to 3,000. The same for swine flu is just three. And Africa is the worst hit. Despite such alarming facts, malaria gets less press than other deadly diseases such as AIDS or swine flu. Perry chronicles the global efforts to eradicate malaria and, in the process, introduces a group of people working, with missionary zeal, to wipe out the deadly disease from the planet. Prominent among them is a team led by Wall Street investor Ray Chambers, who is United Nations' special envoy for malaria now. Along with Peter Chernin, former president of News Corporation, Chambers founded an organisation — Malaria No More — in 2006.

Perry tracks this journey closely to prove how modern management ideas and philanthropy can make a difference to malaria-eradication efforts in Africa, a region made poorer by $30-40 billion each year by this deadly disease. "Fixing it is in everyone's interest," notes Perry, quoting Chambers. While everyone traditionally viewed malaria as a humanitarian concern, Chambers feels that it is in the world's economic interest too. In his own words, thanks to the efforts of his team along with several others, malaria came down by two-thirds in Zambia, by 60 per cent in Rwanda, by half in Ethiopia, and by almost 100 per cent on Zanzibar, an island in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa. Perry's research is immaculate, and voice impartial.

Perry also exposes a world of ironies. For instance, in the Ugandan town of Apac, which houses the world's highest number of malaria-afflicted people, 103,025 houses were sprayed with insecticide, as part of a World Health Organization's programme in early 2008. Soon, the malaria cases almost halved, only to shoot up in three months because the scheme met with severe opposition from Uganda's organic cotton farmers. The farmers said their buyers — which included Western companies such as Nike and H& M — "could not have chemicals anywhere near their cotton if it was to be certified organic". The sad reality lies in the fact that African babies are dying so that western babies can wear organic cotton.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 09-04-2012)