Across the developing world, deaths from malaria have been cut dramatically in the last decade. But even with those advances, the disease still kills more than half a million people a year; many of them children in areas like Sub-Saharan Africa.
Roly Gosling, MD, leads the malaria elimination initiative at UCSF's Global Health Group.
"It's a long battle with malaria. Malaria has been with the human genome for a millennia," said Gosling.
He says recent successes have made a dramatic difference. One was the wide-spread distribution of bed nets, which help protect villagers from mosquitos which transmit the deadly disease. The other was a breakthrough by Berkeley researcher Jay Keasling, who developed a synthetic version of the most effective malaria drug, Artemisinin. That project was also funded in part by the Gates Foundation.
But even with those advances, experts believe there is a danger of malaria returning to countries that now have it under control. That's because of the difficult nature of the disease. Variations can lay dormant in the bodies of some adults. The infected person may not feel any symptoms. But Dr. Gosling says they are actually walking reservoirs.
"And, as long as that you have that reservoir around, mosquitoes can bite you, the anopheles mosquitoes can bite you. And about 14 to 15 days later that mosquito will be infectious. That infectious mosquito can bite lots of different people," said Gosling.
In past decades that's led to a resurgence of the disease in countries that had nearly eliminated it. Dr. Gosling says the grant will help fund widespread testing programs to identify and treat those phantom carriers. He says the other challenge will be to develop drug treatments for forms of malaria that have either grown resistant to Artemisinin or recently emerged in remote areas. The world-wide goal is to eradicate the disease entirely, in the next 40 years.
"Bill and Melinda Gates have made this their, one of their main goals is to eradicate malaria in their lifetime," said Gosling." And as long as we have this political leadership, we can do it."
The World Health Organization estimates malaria elimination programs have already saved more than three million lives since the year 2000.