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September 24, 2007

The story behind the story

Posted by Kristi Heim at 7:28 PM

So why are you journalists in Seattle spending so much time writing about malaria in Africa, when there are plenty of problems in your own back yard? This is a question I've been asked before, and no doubt I'll be asked again.

I can give all the standard arguments for why we should care:

-- It's Bill Gates.
-- It's a technology inventor's dream about changing the world.
-- Malaria is a lens to look at the extraordinary ambitions of the largest charitable foundation in history.
-- Global health is emerging as a defining industry in our region.
-- Imagine the headline: "World's richest human sets out to defeat tiny insect." No, make that "parasite within tiny insect."

In the end, it comes down to a simple question of numbers.

As we sit here comfortably over three days reading this series, 9,000 people will be dead from malaria.

Talk about high impact.

But let's not focus solely on the negative. In a world saturated with crime and war, as one reader noted today, people want to see solutions.

They want to see how an entrenched problem that everyone thought would go on forever, given the will, the right tools and enough money, might just be fixed.

It's not for me to judge whether this is the right solution, or even whether it's the right problem, but I do think chronicling the effort is worthwhile.

Maybe travel and the Internet have simply distorted my world view. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a French journalist made the now famous statement "We are all Americans."

With the equivalent of a 9/11 happening every day, shouldn't we say we are all Africans? Genetically speaking, it's probably true.

The Gates Foundation has spent $1 billion so far to fight malaria. That seems like a lot of money.

But if every person in the United States saved less than a penny a day, collectively we would have the same budget by the end of the year.

And if every person in Seattle gave up just one latte a month -- let's say $36 a year -- they could raise $22 million for the cause of their choice, it would be possible, for example, to buy one $5 bed net for the entire population of the Central African Republic.

Still not convinced? Read this.

Maybe Bill Gates is full of hot air. Maybe he's just trying to square his karma. If you've always wanted to say something to him, here's your chance. He might be reading.

Of course, nobody knows whether solving malaria, if it can be done, will ultimately help Africans have a better life. Considering the numerous problems they face, says economist Tyler Cowen, investing in one is almost like buying a lottery ticket.

I guess the only thing we know for sure is what doing nothing has achieved.


STEVE RINGMAN/SEATTLE TIMES

A 3-year-old child with malaria sits in a hospital bed in Zambia

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Tricia Duryee
Tricia Duryee
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Angel Gonzalez
Angel Gonzalez
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Kristi Heim
Kristi Heim
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Benjamin J. Romano
Benjamin J. Romano
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Mark Watanabe
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