Protecting Against an Old Killer: Malaria

Commentator Melinda Moree, director of the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative, describes a recent visit to Ghana in which she found out first-hand what it was like to be vulnerable to the disease she is trying to combat. Thursday, the White House held a summit on President Bush's efforts to fight malaria.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Today, President Bush added eight more countries to a medical program the U.S. is funding. It's goal, to combat malaria in Africa. The new countries were announced at a White House summit on malaria. They are Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar, Mali and Zambia.

Dr. Melinda Moree is a scientist fighting the disease that kills over a million people a year. She recalls a stay in Africa when she forgot her anti-malarial pills and spent a night with mosquitoes buzzing around her head.

DR. MELINDA MOREE: In my hotel room at the La Palm Royal Beach Hotel in Accra, Ghana, I am on a hunt to kill every single mosquito that has invaded my room. The biggest difference between my room in West Africa and my home in Seattle is that in West Africa, one little mosquito might mean death.

I squash two more against the mirror and immediately I feel a sense of relief as I see that there are no traces of blood from the kill. This means I wasn't bitten. Damn, missed that one. Will it be the one that bites me and transmits the deadly malaria parasite?

I start to chase the mosquito, but she quickly flies out of my reach. I look up at the 10-foot ceiling. One, two, three - I count 34 mosquitoes, all out of reach. The odds are high that one of them could be carrying death.

I have to laugh as I identify with all the great scientists and public-health people who for hundreds of years have been outwitted by this humble insect. I am standing in Ghana, at risk for a disease we Americans no longer fear. It's too late to start taking the expensive, but lifesaving, drugs I should've started swallowing while back in Seattle. The truth is I travel so much in Africa, I simply forgot.

A colleague goads me about going bare. I do a double take. I've heard that term used, but only to describe high risk sexual practices. I think about it and realize that the consequences for both might be death. I shudder to think about all the people in Ghana whose houses are more open to mosquitoes than my nice hotel room. Their houses lack windows or screens that could protect against mosquitoes invading their homes. How many do they have in their houses?

Malaria kills more than one million people a year, and most of them are African children under the age of five. For many diseases, I just get a vaccine and I'm protected, but we don't yet have a malaria vaccine.

Today's White House summit on malaria may draw the attention of policymakers and journalists to malaria and the quest for a malaria vaccine. I'm often told that we face a challenge in inspiring the sort of excitement that U.S. taxpayers have for combating diseases we have here at home.

Perhaps placing all of us in a room full of deadly mosquitoes bare would drive home the point in a way that words never will.

NORRIS: Melinda Moree is the director of the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative.

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