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Defeating malaria won't require miracle, Bush tells summit

Expands initiative to help eight more African countries

WASHINGTON -- President Bush yesterday told an audience at a global malaria summit that the world has the ability to eliminate the disease that kills more than 1 million people a year, saying "the only question is whether we have the will to act."

At the White House Malaria Summit, which brought together political leaders, global health authorities, religious figures, National Basketball Association players, and a choir of orphans from South Africa, Bush announced that his anti malaria initiative will help eight more African countries fight the mosquito-transmitted disease, increasing the number of nations receiving funding from the US government to 15.

"I think our citizens will be amazed to hear that last year about a million Africans died of malaria," Bush said. "The vast majority were children under 5. Their lives ended by nothing more than a mosquito bite."

The president said that his array of development assistance programs for Africa and other poor parts of the world -- a $15 billion AIDS program, the malaria initiative, and the Millennium Challenge Account, among others -- now ranks as "the most ambitious commitment America has made since the Marshall Plan." That four-year effort to rebuild Europe after World War II cost $13 billion, or $130 billion in today's dollars.

Bush particularly singled out the US AIDS program, calling it "one of the most important initiatives in American history."

Defeating malaria, he said, "is not going to require a miracle. It just requires a smart, sustained, focused effort."

For some in the audience who had asked for years for an increase in US funding for malaria control in Africa, the moment was bittersweet. The Bush administration spent roughly $30 million last year toward a five-year $1.2 billion plan to battle malaria. In contrast, the US government spent $1 million for malaria control in 1997.

"It's coming together, step by step, finally," said Jeffrey Sachs , the head of Columbia University's Earth Institute, whose calls five years ago for billions of dollars to fight global health scourges were dismissed then as an impossible dream. "The point we made years and years ago is that stopping malaria is doable. It's a matter of resources. And the costs of solving this problem are minimal."

Sachs, a world-famous economist who taught at Harvard, estimates that combat ing malaria globally would cost $3 billion annually, or $3 per person in the richest Western countries.

In the United States, a national effort to eradicate malaria in the 1940s and 1950s took just four years. It included draining ditches and other areas where mosquitoes breed and spraying insecticides such as DDT over wide areas. But malaria in America was a seasonal problem; in Africa, malaria is a threat year-round in many places and would take far longer to eradicate, specialists say.

Major gains could be made against the disease in less than a year with programs that combine insecticide-treated bed nets, indoor spraying, and powerful drugs to treat the sick, the health specialists say. But those programs must continue for years to keep malaria at bay.

Officials at the summit reported that on the island of Pemba, off the coast of Tanzania, they reduced malaria cases by 86 percent in the first nine months of this year, compared with a similar period in 2005. Twice in the last half-century, however, eradication efforts on the island failed when control programs ended and the disease surged back.

At the summit, organized by Laura Bush and held at the National Geographic Society a few blocks from the White House, the attention was more attuned to attacking the problem now.

"The company Nike has the right slogan for malaria -- 'Just do it,' " said Richard G.A. Feachem , executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.

The Global Fund is the world's largest financier of malaria-control initiatives, spending $900 million in the past four years in 84 countries; the United States contributes 30 percent of that money.

Many said the effort must now reach out to Americans, especially schoolchildren. A new initiative called Malaria No More is asking children to raise or donate $10, or the cost of one anti mosquito bed net.

Timothy P. Shriver , a board member of Malaria No More and chairman of Special Olympics, said in an interview that "there's an enormous hunger in kids to do more. I don't think they have been asked enough to give or to contribute. Maybe malaria is it."

He said he recently told his daughter Kathleen , 12, about the problem of malaria in Africa and how a single bed net could save a life. "Within four days, she had $50 for bed nets," Shriver said. "I'm not sure where the money came from -- maybe from friends, part of her allowance. But it was a clear enough message. She could help another child."

John Donnelly can be reached at donnelly@globe.com

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