Obama calls for an end to malaria

In his final State of the Union address, President Barack Obama transcended the acrimony over foreign policy with his bold call for the world to end malaria. Obama continues to prioritize international development and global health as a key component of foreign policy, recognizing that combating disease and poverty is among the most effective tools to improve people’s lives abroad, while simultaneously advancing America’s national interest. By leading the effort to eliminate malaria, Obama has demonstrated both the best in American leadership and politics.

Malaria is one of the oldest, deadliest diseases in human history. This mosquito-born illness threatens half of the world’s population, but disproportionately affects young children and pregnant mothers. Malaria is among the leading killers of children under five in Africa. An estimated 438,000 people were killed by malaria in 2015 alone. In addition, Malaria is the primary cause of missed days of school and work on the continent, contributing to enormous losses in human capital and productivity.

{mosads}President George W. Bush led the way, making the U.S. a leader in the fight against malaria. In addition to establishing the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), President Bush also set in motion the policies and funding that prioritized fighting malaria by creating the highly successful President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) in 2005. Over the course of his administration, Obama doubled funding for PMI, cementing American leadership in fighting malaria. PMI now supports anti-malaria efforts in 19 African countries and throughout Southeast Asia. Equally important, the establishment of PMI, its measureable success, and the successive growth in malaria funding have enjoyed continuously strong bipartisan leadership and support in Congress.

Few policies have enjoyed such strong support across party lines and on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and the results have been staggering. Since 2000, more than 6.2 million lives have been saved and there has been a 60 percent decline in the rate of global malaria deaths. As Margaret Chan, the director-general of the World Health Organization recently declared, “global malaria control is one of the great public health success stories of the past 15 years.” 

We have the power to defeat malaria. Despite its virulence, malaria is a treatable, preventable disease – if you have timely access to lifesaving drugs and bed-nets. Few Americans remember a time when our own country was plagued with this deadly disease and even fewer know that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was established in 1948 precisely to fight the scourge of malaria in the United States. Just a few years later, we succeeded in eliminating malaria in the U.S.  With the right tools, financing, and political will, we can be the generation to end malaria worldwide.

Recognizing that many children are just one mosquito bite away from death, in a speech before the United Nations, President Obama called on the world to tackle this “moral outrage.” By issuing a call to action in his final State of the Union address, the president placed malaria elimination at the very top of the American political agenda as well.

Bush first established America as a global leader on malaria, and Obama is striving to set us on the path to end this dreadful disease. Two presidents with vastly divergent policies, both understand the power of achieving this important foreign policy and humanitarian goal. By providing the necessary funding, the Congress can continue to play a historic role in ensuring that fighting malaria remains a centerpiece of American foreign policy, and a legacy of bipartisanship – demonstrating the best of American politics. 

Blumenfeld is the managing director of Policy & Advocacy at Malaria No More.

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