April 25 is World Malaria Day, and this year’s theme is “Invest in the Future: Defeat Malaria.” More than half of the world’s population is at risk for malaria, a potentially fatal disease that is transmitted through mosquitoes. Strong investments in malaria research and programming have helped reduce global malaria mortality rates by 26% since 2000, and 50 countries are on track to reduce malaria cases by 75% by 2015. World Malaria Day is an opportunity to celebrate these successes and raise awareness of the investments that are still needed to fight this life-threatening disease.
Despite the hard-won progress made against malaria, approximately 660,000 people die from this disease every year, and drug-resistant strains are emerging in all corners of the globe. Particularly worrisome is malaria that is resistant to artemisinin, one of today’s most widely used antimalarial drugs. Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, highlighted this issue in a public hearing on drug-resistant infections earlier this week. He cautioned that the continuing spread of artemisinin-resistant malaria would be a significant setback for global control efforts. Freiden also noted that many antimalarial drugs currently in the research pipeline are arteminisin-based, so widespread resistance could render these drugs ineffective before they are even brought to market.
Drug resistance has complicated the battle against malaria, but it by no means has ended that battle. At the World Malaria Day congressional briefing sponsored by the Senate Caucus on Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases, panelists discussed several exciting new research initiatives ranging from innovative drug combinations to new diagnostic tools that could help clinicians detect and track drug resistance in malaria patients. A theme throughout was the importance of public-private collaboration, as evidenced by the participation of industry leaders such as Exxon Mobil, NGOs and U.S. government agency officials. Other event highlights included remarks by Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), Sen. John Boozman, OD (R-AR), and Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), who affirmed the bipartisan support for global efforts to combat malaria. Continued U.S. government investment in malaria control efforts, particularly in research to develop new antimalarial tools, is essential if we are to win the global battle to eliminate this life-threatening disease.
—Morgan McCloskey, global health intern
On September 21st, Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) announced that the Senate Malaria Working Group was turning into an official Senate congressional caucus focused on combating 17 neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) in addition to malaria. With NTDs affecting over 1.4 billion people worldwide and documented cases of NTDs here in the U.S., this commitment to finding new solutions is good news. Past U.S. government involvement in the fight against NTDs has yielded promising results. The National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense have funded crucial basic research for NTDs. Similarly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have implemented strong surveillance programs and the U.S. Agency for International Development’s NTD Program has made remarkable progress toward controlling the spread of several NTDs with existing treatments. However, these programs are constrained by the limits of existing tools and continued funding is needed to advance NTD prevention and control. Some of the most commonly used drugs are not effective or have toxic side effects, resulting in unnecessary complications or the need for repeat doses. Vaccines and adequate diagnostic tools are also lacking for many of these diseases. While continuing to treat these diseases on the ground, research to develop new tools is vital. More effective drugs and diagnostics will improve current treatment and control programs, while new vaccines could eliminate the threat of NTDs altogether. Investment into NTD research to develop these new prevention and treatment methods is essential for a successful global fight against NTDs. Members of Congress are recognizing the importance of combating NTDs. As advocates, researchers and implementers, we need to continue to make our voices heard for the health and prosperity of Americans and people worldwide.
-Morgan McCloskey, global health intern
Looking back on last week’s AIDS2012 Conference, it is easy to see the impact that Washington, DC, and the proximity to Congress had on the tone of the discussion. Throughout the week-long conference, many of the events, panels, workshops and sessions highlighted the role of federal funding for global health research and development, as well as the impact of actions by Congress on the future of HIV/AIDS research. At Wednesday’s session, “The U.S. Congress and the Global AIDS Epidemic,” former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist led a conversation with Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE), Mike Enzi (R-WY), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), showcasing the past and future role of Congress in the effort to end HIV/AIDS.
During his tenure in the Senate, Frist played an important role in securing increased funding for global health initiatives. Throughout the panel discussion, the importance of bipartisan support and the value of research and development were repeated as key themes. As Lee pointed out, having AIDS2012 in DC has “helped to shed a global spotlight on a domestic epidemic,” noting that areas of the U.S. have HIV rates comparable to areas of sub-Saharan Africa. Washington, DC, itself is one example. Lee went on to note that in order to find a cure, resources and support for PEPFAR, the Global Fund and U.S. global health programs are vital.
Rubio noted that he has been pleasantly surprised by the bipartisan support he has seen in Congress concerning global health issues and emphasized that funding for global health and international development is not the cause of the budget deficit. Despite the perception of the public that the number is much higher, foreign aid comprises less than 1% of the U.S. budget.
“If you zeroed out foreign aid,” Rubio said, “it would do nothing for the debt, but it would be devastating not just for the world, but for America’s role in it.”
Concluding that research and development is the way to maintain support and move the HIV/AIDS field forward, Rubio emphasized the importance of developing more affordable, more effective medications, treatments and potential cures.
Following up on this theme, Coons called for continued support and investment in order to “innovate and cure our way out of this,” specifically pointing to vaccines as the future in HIV/AIDS research.
Capping off the conversation with some success stories from the field, Frist and Enzi recalled one of their first trips to Africa and the value of seeing firsthand the impact that antiretrovirals were having on the ground. Pointing to meetings with researchers on this trip, both Enzi and Frist reiterated the importance of investment in research in order to truly make a difference.
The panel discussion was interrupted by individuals advocating for increased rights for sex workers and the repeal of PEPFAR’s anti-prostitution funding restrictions. Regardless of one’s perspective on the impact of this disruption, it reinforces the strength of our nation’s democratic system and in no way compromised the strength of the panelists’ positive message about the importance of the federal role in advancing global health.
Tell your Member of Congress that research to combat HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria, neglected tropical diseases and other health threats here and abroad is an economic and humanitarian imperative by visiting our website.