Gates keeps the bar high in push for malaria eradication

ABC medical correspondent Dr. Richard Besser interviews Bill and Melinda Gates in Seattle this morning.

Addressing the Malaria Forum in downtown Seattle this morning, Bill Gates sounded at times like he was back in the tech business, trying to get a reluctant team to think long-term and shoot for an ambitious target — using charts and statistical models to make his case.

But Gates never encountered a challenge this big at Microsoft. He was talking about the eradication of malaria, which kills close to 800,000 people a year. The audience was a crowd of scientists and global health leaders, many of whom have been skeptical of his calls for focusing on eradication in the past. The battle against the disease is expected to last another generation, at least.

“I know some people in the malaria community worry that focusing on the uncertain goal of eradication could distract us from control measures that are working today,” he said. “I understand this desire to stay focused on saving lives. But I don’t see eradication and control as two separate approaches to fighting against malaria. Instead they are two compatible parts of a single approach. To achieve elimination we need to start with control, drive it up to very high levels and sustain it. But if we don’t target elimination and eradication, control will lapse.”

The appearance by Bill and Melinda Gates at the conference coincided with the news that a malaria vaccine candidate had reduced deaths by half in children ages 5 months to 17 months in Africa in late-stage clinical trials. The Gateses called the results promising but cautioned that much more needs to be done on a wide variety of fronts.

“Philanthropic dollars can only be the catalytic wedge,” said Melinda Gates. “Our dollars may look large but they are only a wedge in this. This all is going to come down to government funding long term.”

As evidence of the community’s progress, she cited statistics showing that malaria deaths have declined by 20 percent since 2000.

Separately, scientists in Seattle have been working on another potential vaccine that works by genetically modifying the malaria parasite.

The forum, hosted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, continues in downtown Seattle through tomorrow.