War against malaria

Revival: Parasite in Africa is a long-range threat to public health in this country.

June 22, 2000

ILLNESS, far more than bad government or crime, is what holds Africa back from development. AIDS and the revival of malaria come foremost in shortening life spans, destroying work forces, discouraging investment, fostering despair.

Sun reporter Douglas Birch gave a riveting account Sunday of the suffering endured by Africans with malaria. He detailed the heroic effort to find a vaccine by physicians at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research led by Dr. W. Ripley Ballou.

Parasitic diseases in Africa -- sleeping sickness and river blindness, along with malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS -- have not attracted as many resources as they might. Much of the research is driven by pharmaceutical companies with their own constraints. Only AIDS research has finally become fashionable.

Where the afflicted show no apparent ability to pay, the market is unlikely to produce a cure or prevention. But when a disease cripples large parts of the world, such as sub-Sahara Africa or formerly Soviet Central Asia, there is a compelling U.S. national interest in fighting the disease.

If malaria is killing 1.1 million Africans a year, outwitting vaccines and popping up in this country, it is a long-term threat to U.S. public health. Tuberculosis, once defeated here, is making a comeback. AIDS leaped from population to population and lifestyle to lifestyle. The world is too small and travel too easy for any assumption that a dread illness can remain safely Over There.

Recent advances against malaria, putting ultimate victory within reach, have increased the funding from government and foundations. A successful vaccine is imaginable if not at hand.

But the fundamental problem remains that U.S. funding ought to be more available for research into ailments that afflict poorer populations. That is not pure altruism; it's national interest.

President Clinton in his final budget proposal seeks a small $1 billion in tax credits for pharmaceutical company efforts to develop vaccines for malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS. Even that is getting short shrift in Congress.

Better to defeat malaria there before it attacks here.

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