America Should Be Proud of Its Effort to Combat Malaria

Co-authored by Alex Burke

We live in a political era dominated by tremendous division, and there is a climate in which intransigence is celebrated as strength and compromise is vilified as a weakness. However, there is at least one initiative, which George W. Bush started and Barack Obama has continued, that will endure as a bipartisan effort that helps define their legacies positively: America's role in drastically reducing malaria-related deaths in sub-Saharan Africa.

Malaria originates from a parasite that often infects the anopheles mosquito, an insect that feeds on human blood. While increased investments in malaria control have seen positive results, it remains a devastating and deadly disease in some of the poorest nations on Earth. In 2012, more than 200 million clinical cases of malaria occurred, resulting in the loss of more than 625,000 lives, many in sub-Saharan Africa. In areas of increased transmission, the most vulnerable individuals are children, who have not yet effectively developed immunity to the disease, and pregnant women, whose resistance lowers during pregnancy. Unfortunately, to date, there is no vaccine against the disease.

However, building upon numerous scientific advancements made in the past 100 years, there are effective prevention measures to reduce mosquito populations as well as treatments for those infected. For example, in 1947, the United States launched the National Malaria Eradication Program, which included the application of mosquito spray to more than 46 million households. By 1951, malaria was considered eradicated in the United States. Today, there are approximately 1,500 malaria cases in the U.S. per year, but these are generally immigrants or travelers returning to the U.S. from infected areas. Unfortunately, prevention, control, and treatment strategies are expensive and have limited availability in the most vulnerable regions. In the poorest tropical and subtropical areas, malaria remains difficult to control. In these locations, efficient mosquitoes thrive in a favorable climate, transmitting the disease to the most vulnerable.

At a time when America faces historic debt levels, some rightly question any expenditure that does not have an immediate offset or return on investment. It is important to note that despite common misperceptions, only about 1% is expropriated for foreign assistance, and only a small percentage of that goes to global health initiatives. When we reduce diseases abroad, we lessen the risk of infecting Americans traveling abroad as well as those seeking to travel to the United States.

Progress to combat malaria in the 21st century has been dramatic. Estimates are that malaria-control interventions between 2001 and 2013 led to 4.3 million fewer malaria deaths, largely composed of children younger than 5 in sub-Saharan Africa.

America has taken the lead in addressing a humanitarian crisis, and as a result, millions of lives have been saved, and the moral authority of the United States has been strengthened abroad. This would not be possible without a bipartisan effort. Our role in this fight represents the best of American politics and work of which we should all be proud.

Michael A. (Mike) Moodian chairs the Santa Margarita Catholic High School Consultative School Board in Southern California and is a past chairman of the World Affairs Council of Orange County. Alex Burke, a Santa Margarita Catholic High School junior, is founder and president of the school's International Relations Club. The opinions expressed are their own.