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CRENSHAW AND DAVIS: Ending the scourge of malaria

A world safe for people, menacing for mosquitoes

- - Friday, April 26, 2013

President Obama released his budget request for fiscal 2014 this month, kicking off several weeks of what will be difficult and heated negotiations among members of the House and Senate as investment priorities are set and hard decisions about cuts are made. Although our nation is facing tough fiscal challenges, we have seen incredible returns on some of our investments, particularly in global health, and we simply cannot afford to turn our backs on these commitments now.

U.S. support for global health has had a major impact around the world, particularly our contributions to fighting malaria through the President's Malaria Initiative and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. Since the launch of the malaria initiative in 2005, malaria cases have decreased by 50 percent in 43 countries, saving the lives of more than 1 million children and improving economic growth and national security in malaria-endemic countries. For the first time in history, some of these countries are working toward eliminating the disease altogether. This means a healthier, more productive and safer world for all, and much of this progress is the result of U.S. investments and leadership.

What is remarkable about these numbers is that we have been able to accomplish so much with relatively little. Less than 1 percent of the U.S. budget is spent on foreign assistance, and our contribution to fighting malaria is less than three-hundredths of 1 percent of total U.S. government spending. Thanks to investments over the past couple of decades, we have a wide range of powerful tools to fight this preventable and treatable disease, including long-lasting bed nets to protect families from mosquitoes, improved technology to track and diagnose the disease, and drugs to treat it and avoid needless deaths. These tools are simple, affordable and effective: The President's Malaria Initiative has reached more than 50 million people with prevention or treatment services, including bed nets, anti-malarial drugs and diagnostics. For every dollar we provide to the Global Fund, other donors provide at least an additional $2. Most important of all, millions of people are living more productive, healthier lives.

Yet this effort is not without challenges. The 2012 World Malaria Report from the World Health Organization finds that global funding to fight malaria has plateaued over the past two years and is poised to start decreasing. This is frightening news, not just for the millions of vulnerable individuals who face the risk of malaria infection every day, but also for all of us — policymakers, technical specialists, researchers and community health workers, who have worked so hard to get to where we are. We know from experience that any decrease in support for fighting malaria will result in a resurgence of the disease, potentially undoing years of incredible efforts and investment.

Additionally, the tools in use today are threatened by increasingly resistant malaria. Supporting the research and development of innovative tools and technologies is needed to help ensure more success. Just this past month, we hit a major milestone by beginning the large-scale production of semi-synthetic artemisinin, the main ingredient in the most effective malaria drugs that, until now, was dependent solely on a botanical source. Thanks to nearly nine years of work by a wide range of partners — from the business, science and philanthropic sectors — we have multiple sources of high-quality artemisinin and are closer than ever before to having a steady supply of anti-malarial treatments at a stable cost, to ensure that the millions of children who fall sick from malaria each year do not die.

The bottom line: Cutting malaria funding is more than a bad investment strategy; the lives of children hang in the balance.

We are at a crossroads in our fight to end this disease. Never have we accomplished so much, and never have we had so much at stake. As we enter into budget negotiations for fiscal 2014, U.S. policymakers will have some difficult decisions to make. Whether to continue funding malaria work should not be one of them.

If the good we're doing around the world isn't compelling enough to support investments in the fight against malaria, the fact that these investments also support Americans around the world, and our troops in particular, should. Investments and research efforts in the fight against malaria also help protect our troops stationed overseas. When they are in harm's way, the last thing they should be worried about is a mosquito.

The United States has an opportunity to strengthen its role as a global leader in this fight — to decide, despite fiscal challenges, to sustain the impressive progress made by maintaining robust funding for the Global Fund and the President's Malaria Initiative, as well as support for malaria research and development through the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Defense, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Through these commitments, we will demonstrate to the world our dedication to ending malaria once and for all.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw, Florida Republican, is co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases, and Steve Davis is CEO of PATH, an international nonprofit health organization.