About a decade ago I was lying on the cold floor of a Nairobi Airport, feverish, convulsing and barely conscious. Through a haze my cameraman travelling partner, approached me with a wooden black cross. I had contracted malaria, and in my state of mind the only thing I could imagine was that he was about to give me my last rites.
As it turned out, the cross was a gift, intended to cheer me up as I waited for the medication I had received to kick in.
Twenty hours later it had, and I arrived home looking and feeling fine, to the surprise of my wife Merridie, who had last spoken with me when I was in the depths of disorientation. I was one of the lucky ones.
In such a short period of time I had felt the full brunt of a disease which steals the lives of nearly half a million people each year; and the full strength of our medical ability to overcome it.
This week global health practitioners, world leaders in medical research, and development experts will descend on Melbourne for the First Malaria World Congress. Their conference may not make the headlines, but when, not if, they succeed in their aims we will remember this moment as a catalyst in the mission to eradicate malaria.
In the context of all human history, the journey toward the eradication of malaria has been on fast forward. Only 200 years ago malaria was rampant; occurring in almost every country on earth. Since 2010, increased investment and attention on eradication has seen a 29% reduction in malaria mortality rates globally.
Yet, recently we’ve taken our foot off the pedal. As malaria eradication has dropped off the radar, the number of new infections has increased; up 5 million cases from 211 million in 2016 to 216 million last year. Still today, in 2018, a child dies from malaria every two minutes.
With that in mind, this first Malaria World Congress could not come soon enough.
That Australia is playing host to this summit is an encouraging sign of our willingness to convene and lead efforts in our region and around our world.
According to the World Health Organisation, our region carries the second largest burden of malaria of anywhere on the globe. In our backyard there are 28 million cases of malaria annually, resulting in 45,000 deaths. Many of them children.
Lead we should and lead we must.
Leading the eradication of malaria is the right thing to do. Living in the land of the fair go, there wouldn’t be an Australian who can’t see the plain and simple unfairness that a few hours north of Darwin, in places like Papua New Guinea, the bite of a mosquito is so much worse than just a nuisance. Organisations such as World Vision play a big part in saving lives by providing mosquito nets and disrupting insect breeding grounds in vulnerable communities. When we have the resources, the knowledge, and the opportunity to prevent the spread of a disease that specialises in killing children, we must choose either to act or to ignore the very essence of our national morality.
Now Australia’s expertise gives us the chance to medically lead in the eradication of malaria. It is the smart thing to do. While we may well be girt by sea, we are not an island. A wealth of research shows the economic cost of the disease to malaria-endemic countries. With our influence in the Pacific, and our trade growth in South East Asia in the spotlight, there is a direct line from reducing the impact of the disease to building the shared prosperity of our region.
But more than that, Australia still bears our own scars of malaria. It’s written on gravestones in the Northern Territory. It’s written in the medical records of our soldiers in the Pacific, including my own father who contracted the disease while fighting the Japanese in PNG during the Second World War. Australia has been malaria-free for less than 40 years, and the one species of mosquito that harbours and spreads the disease, the anopheles mosquito, is still found in the Northern Territory. Add to that the rise of drug-resistant mutations and we would be myopic to ignore the clear and present threat that malaria still brings.
Leading the eradication of malaria is also the Australian thing to do. Australia has led in medical interventions. We led the world to medical penicillin, electronic pacemakers, cochlear implants and the HPV vaccine. Just this year the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne invented an oral rotavirus vaccine administered in the first few days after birth. This provides protection from dehydrating diarrhoea that kills 215,000 children under 5 globally. With this history, it’s no wonder Bill Gates described leadership on malaria eradication as ‘a natural role for Australia.’
I am proud that we are a country with a big heart, willing to chip in without saying ‘what is in it for us?’.
We know intrinsically the value of community, and ascribe to the fundamentally Australian social contract that says we all do our bit for the common good. We help. We volunteer. We give. We are a big-hearted nation, so we don’t sit by when there is work to be done, neighbours to help, and suffering to be eased, whether it be in our local or global communities.
While recent cruel cuts to the Australian Aid budget have driven our investment in this global community to historic lows, I have been heartened to see boosted funding for malaria eradication. I am also encouraged by Australia’s work establishing the Asia Pacific Leaders Malaria Alliance and by our Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, who just this month called for an increase in our national aid budget, stepping up to join Bill Gates’ End Malaria Council.
In the midst of turbulent times, we should take heart that the world can truly be rid of malaria in our lifetime and that we big-hearted Australians are ready to take the lead, starting this week at the First World Malaria Congress.
Tim Costello is Executive Director of Micah Australia and World Vision Australia Chief Advocate.
Image credit: DFAT Flicker