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Malaria: One NGO worker's fight

Awa Marie Coll-Seck has spent years combating malaria.

When Coll-Seck became a professor specializing in infectious diseases at Senegal’s university teaching hospital, she began to see the full impact. For six months during the rainy season, the hospital took in upwards of 100 new patients a day. “You put them where ever you could,” she recalled. Then HIV/AIDS struck. “The adults all had AIDS,” she said, "but the children were still dying from malaria.”

Coll-Seck took a brief hiatus from malaria to become the director of policy and strategy for UNAIDS in Geneva. Then she was called back to Senegal to become minister of health. She soon realized that malaria was by far the country’s biggest health problem. It was so prevalent, so much a part of everyday life, that it was constantly being overlooked. People had adapted to its presence. She also realized that effectively fighting malaria required more than medical knowledge.

Pharmacists in Senegal were still selling chloroquine, even though the parasite had developed immunity to it. “To change policy, you needed to make everyone own the change,” Coll-Seck said. “If the pharmacists didn’t care, they would continue selling a drug that no longer worked.” The next problem was money. “We had everyone convinced,” she explained, “but most people couldn’t afford to buy the new drugs that were 20 times more expensive than the old ones.”

Instead of pleading with international donors, Coll-Seck opted for a fund-raising drive in Senegal. She enlisted celebrities and anyone else she could rope in. The campaign raised $1 million — enough to pay for the treatment of every child who needed it during the next rainy season.

Not long after, Coll-Seck was named executive director of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership. The partnership, which grew out of the Global Health Fund’s decision to expand its mandate beyond HIV/AIDS to include tuberculosis and malaria, is a novel concept that may provide a model for other major international problems.

Launched in 1998 by the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the World Bank and the U.N. Development Program, the partnership works out of the World Health Organization’s headquarters in Geneva, under the same rules as any other U.N. organization. The difference is that it also includes a loose coalition of countries most affected by malaria, as well as NGOs, pharmaceutical companies and just about anyone else involved in the struggle. “We needed everyone to work together on this,” Coll-Seck said.