I covered television, and then the big media companies, for about 20 years before turning to the environment and corporate responsibility, and I have to say that I donâ€™t miss Hollywood. Sure, show biz can be fun, but after a while itâ€™s hard to care about whoâ€™s up in the Nielsen ratings or whether MySpace will be a big Internet hit. What I do miss are some of the people I got to know over the years.
Thatâ€™s why it was great to see Peter Chernin, the second-in-command at Rupert Murdochâ€™s News Corp., this week at Michael Milkenâ€™s global conference in Beverly Hills. (I first met Peter when he was lowly programming exec at Showtime.) Peter wasnâ€™t at the conference to talk about Fox or News Corp., thoughâ€”he came to speak about his passion for ridding the world of malaria.
The malaria story is incredible, and revealing. Did you know that a child dies every 30 seconds from malaria? That the disease causes more than 1 million deaths a year? And that we could do a great deal to save those lives at a relatively low cost?
The deaths are â€œthe equivalent of a World Trade Center every day. A tsunami, which drew the worldâ€™s attention, every month,â€ Chernin said. â€œAnd we can solve itâ€¦Shame on us if we donâ€™t act.â€
Simple and low-cost measures have proven to be highly effective ways to save lives. They include providing bed nets to people, spraying homes with insecticide, making sure those who contract malaria get treated rapidly and presumptively pregnant women in high-risk areas.
The fact that malaria is such a big problem and that we know how to solve it is what attracted Chernin to the cause. He learned about the disease, which is caused by a parasite spread from person to person by mosquitos, while he was on the board of an AIDS initiative at Harvard. Last year, he became the chairman of a New York-based nonprofit called Malaria No More.
â€œIâ€™m a businessman,â€ Chernin said, when asked why this has become his issue. â€œIâ€™m drawn, ultimately, by issues of effectiveness and return on investment. Iâ€™m paid to produce results. This is the most compelling global health crisis facing the world today.â€
So whatâ€™s the problem? One problem is that, unlike AIDS or cancer, malaria kills people who are poor and live far from the U.S. or Europeâ€”about 90% in sub-Saharan Africa, the rest in Asia and Latin America. â€œMost congressman donâ€™t have a constituent calling them up and asking for help with malaria,â€ Chernin said. So the disease was neglected for years.
Thatâ€™s changing. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a coalition of governments and NGOs, has provided $3.6 billion for malaria programs since it was formed in 2002, according to this excellent article in The Washington Post. In 2006, President Bush launched a malaria initiative; the federal government intends to spend $1.2 billion by 2010. â€œPresident Bush and Mrs. Bush have been remarkable leaders on malaria,â€ said Chernin, a prominent Democrat and party donor. The Gates Foundation has also made stopping malaria one of its priorities.
Businesses are getting active, too. ExxonMobil announced this month that it would donate $10 million to Malaria No More. American Idol, the TV megahit on Fox, raised about $76 million last year on its â€œIdol Gives Backâ€ episode, of which $9 million went to Malaria No More and $8 million to malaria-related causes.; this year, it expects to raise nearly as much.
The money goes a long way in Africa. â€œMoney can have more of an impact on malaria than virtually any other cause,â€ Chernin said. It costs about $5 to make a bednet that is impregnated with insecticide and another $5 to get it to an African home; the nets remain effective for about five years. Even more remarkably, new drug therapies â€œwill cure a child completely within three days for a cost of 37 cents,â€ said Sir Richard Feacham, the former director of the Global Fund, who also spoke at the Milken panel. â€œThirty-seven cents to save the life of a child who would otherwise have died. This is a miracle.â€
Widespread use of bednets and the drug treatments have succeeded in cutting malaria deaths in half in Rwanda and Ethiopia, according to the World Health Organization. So thereâ€™s no mystery about what needs to be done.
To see what you can do, check out Malaria No More.