New WHO President Returns Malaria to World’s Attention

Malaria came into the international viewfinder last week as world leaders answered a call from the new director of the World Health Organization to fight the mosquito-borne disease.

Leaders at the annual Group of Eight Countries summit in Britain announced their support Sunday for the anti-malaria campaign in their joint communique.

In the document, leaders from the US, Britain, Germany, Japan, France, Canada, Italy and Russia pledged support to “significantly reduce the death rate from malaria by 2010.”

The anti-malaria campaign was announced by Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway.

Brundtland was en­dorsed as director-general of WHO on May 13 at the 51st World Health As­sembly.

Brundtland is the first wo­man to hold the position and takes over the job at a time when the UN ag­ency in charge of health is going through a major ad­min­is­trative reorganization.

Malaria is a major international concern because it affects so many people—especially in Af­rica, Brundtland said.

The mosquito-borne disease is also a primary cause of poverty, she said.

“Who said that infectious diseases were becoming yesterday’s problem? The human suffering is unacceptable and so is the economic burden,” Brundtland said in a statement.

The WHO estimates that every year there are 500 million cases of malaria among children and adults. Every day, 3,000 children die from the disease.

Cambodia is one of several countries in Southeast Asia that is seriously affected by the disease. Last year, the National Malaria Center in Phnom Penh counted more than 170,000 cases of ma­laria and 800 deaths.

Malaria cases in Cambodia are up by more than 60 percent from 1996.

But because so few cases actually end up in the country’s hospitals and patients are often in the most remote locations, health experts say the number of mala­ria cases in Cambodia is actually much higher.

WHO has been working in Cambodia to help combat mala­ria since 1954. The organization left in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took power and did not return until after 1991.

In the mid-1950s, WHO at­tempted to eradicate the mosquito-borne parasite throughout the world with a campaign of draining swamplands and spraying DDT. DDT was later found to be extremely toxic to humans and the project was stopped immediately.

The recent announcements are part of a new resurgence of international activity against the disease. Research on a possible malaria vaccine is currently going on in England.

In her speech, Brundtland also talked about increasing awareness of tobacco as a major cause of premature death. The WHO estimates that about 4 million people will die this year from tobacco-related illnesses.

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