Thursday, August 17, 2017

Engaging the private sector in the fight against malaria

The past decade has seen unprecedented progress against many of the world’s leading global health challenges, including HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Thanks to bold commitment by political and business leaders, we have seen increased investment in global health and steady progress toward ambitious goals like the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

A macabre sign advertises Atabrine brand anti-malaria medicine at the 363rd Station Hospital in Guinea during World War II. Photo: Otis Historical ArchivesA macabre sign advertises Atabrine brand anti-malaria medicine at the 363rd Station Hospital in Guinea during World War II. Photo: Otis Historical Archives

With malaria control, for example, there has been notable improvement since the start of the new millennium, particularly due to greater involvement of a wide variety of partners and increased external funding for endemic countries. With increased coordination of the Roll Back Malaria (RBM) partners and under the technical leadership of the World Health Organisation (WHO), global malaria deaths have declined by more than 25 percent since 2000.

With serious financial and technical challenges threatening progress in these last 1000 days before the 2015 deadline of the MDGs, one thing is certain: All sectors of society must be involved in the fight against malaria if our gains are to be sustained and scaled up in hard-to-reach communities. This will require a multisector, country-led approach, with actors from various sectors working together to maximise the impact of our limited resources.

Nowhere is this truer than in the evolving democracy of Myanmar, which accounts for one of the highest burdens of malaria in the Asia-Pacific, with half the population at risk of infection and nearly 17,000 malaria-related deaths occurring each year.

On November 25 and 26 Myanmar is holding its first malaria forum focused on greater private sector engagement. Under the organisation of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, in association with the Myanmar Health and Development Consortium and the Myanmar Business Coalition on AIDS, and with support from the Ministry of Health, the two-day meeting aims to involve corporate leaders in efforts to contain drug-resistant malaria by developing an accreditation scheme that would incentivise employers to act in support of the Myanmar Artemisinin Resistance Containment strategy.

Rapid economic growth and increasing foreign direct investment in the country have attracted large local and foreign labour forces that, on one hand, threaten to perpetuate the spread of disease through migrant employees, while also offering a unique channel through which to reach vulnerable groups and advance key public health strategies. By investing in malaria, the corporate sector stands to protect the communities in which they operate and play a critical role in the success of containment efforts.

While malaria-endemic governments have demonstrated high levels of commitment and subsequent success against malaria and other health issues, most governments lack the resources needed to comprehensively and fully tackle malaria. With bigger budgets, wider reach and often greater efficiency, the private sector has and will continue to play a crucial – and welcome – role as we move forward.

For many in the private sector, investments in corporate social responsibility have yielded big results. Beyond moral obligation, most investments in health areas began as a way to protect the workforce and, ultimately, the bottom line. But with a minimally higher investment, many employers have benefited from the power of broader community investment, creating not only healthy employees but also healthy, more robust markets while advancing progress against the global health and development agenda at the local level.

In Papua New Guinea, for example, the country’s largest oil and gas producer, Oil Search Limited, has become a leading partner in the nation’s malaria control efforts. In the mid-1990s, Oil Search began working with local health staff and company management to develop a comprehensive malaria control program intended to protect its workforce. Since its 1997 inception, the program has helped achieve an impressive 23pc decrease in malaria prevalence in communities covered by the program. Recent numbers indicate a 50pc decrease in the number of people testing positive for malaria in all health facilities in the project area between 2010 and 2011.

Oil Search’s growing national focus has helped the country secure ongoing funding for malaria from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and in February 2012 the newly established Oil Search Health Foundation was chosen to assume the role of Principal Recipient of the country’s Global Fund grant for malaria.

And there are several examples of responsible corporate investment right here in Myanmar. For example, an investment in malaria by the Moattama Gas Transportation Company (MGTC), in cooperation with the Myanmar health authorities, has helped to develop a socioeconomic program aimed at reducing the main causes of mortality in the region through immunisation programs, free medical care for villagers, promotion of best health practices and improved hygiene. Increased funding by MGTC has resulted in increased capacity and better health systems that have resulted in decreased malaria and infant mortality rates.

The leading palm oil and rubber producer in Myanmar, Yuzana Company Ltd, is also helping make strides against malaria through its partnership with the US Agency for International Development’s Control and Prevention of Malaria Project (CAP-Malaria). With more than 50,000 mobile and migrant workers on Yuzana’s plantations, CAP-Malaria is strengthening the quality of the company’s clinics by providing access to diagnostics and treatment, as well as on-the-job training and a mobile malaria clinic to reach workers in remote areas. Through checkpoints, the project also monitors malaria in migrant populations departing the Yuzana region and returning home.

There are countless examples of successful public-private partnerships in global health, but what we know is that the private sector is a powerful partner capable of working independently or in partnership with national governments to strengthen capacity and expand access to lifesaving interventions, resulting in true, lasting progress toward universal development goals across the board.

The fast-paced progress against malaria has enjoyed unprecedented momentum due largely to a surge in political support and funding increases that have allowed greater access to effective and affordable interventions that have, in turn, helped decrease the global burden of disease.

Yet malaria continues to devastate communities and drain economies around the world. The WHO estimates that malaria infects 219 million people around the globe each year, killing approximately 660,000. Roughly 85pc of these deaths are children under the age of five.

Behind Africa, the Asia-Pacific region carries the second-highest burden of malaria globally, with 20 malaria-endemic countries accounting for approximately 30 million cases and 42,000 deaths each year.

Now, more than ever, we must identify opportunities to work together across all sectors. This will require us to ask ourselves how we might engage the private sector in a more meaningful manner. In the Asia-Pacific region specifically, as borders become more open and regional cooperation and investment opportunities become more viable, we have an opportunity to work in partnership in a coordinated, multisectoral method to ensure development projects are linked to broader health impact.

I encourage business leaders joining the discussions in Yangon this week to consider not only their bottom dollar but also the impact they might have on the communities in which they operate. When companies enter public-private partnerships and invest in malaria – through the Global Fund, for example – they help create healthy communities and thriving markets that can change the course of history for generations.

We must learn from companies like Oil Search and the Yuzana Company: When we engage companies in true public-private partnerships, we have an opportunity to leverage their unique skillsets, unrivalled efficiency and deep networks that will help us to truly expand access to lifesaving interventions in more cost-effective ways so we can save more lives. These exemplary partnerships have shown us the high return that relatively low investments in malaria can have.

In January 2012, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that malaria would be a priority under his second mandate. He also emphasised the importance of partnerships to help advance progress against UN priorities. As we work to answer the secretary-general’s call and expand the fragile gains made in the fight against malaria, particularly in a region ripe with new economic opportunities, let us do so with a truly multisectoral approach. No one group or government can overcome this killer, but if we work together in innovative and meaningful ways, I believe we can.

Hervé Verhoosel is head of external relations at the Roll Back Malaria (RBM) Partnership, the global framework for coordinated action against malaria that was founded in 1998 by UNICEF, WHO, UNDP and the World Bank.