MOMBASA, Kenya—In 2007, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said it was committed to eradicating malaria across the globe. By then, it was late to the game.
That year, Chinese scientists working with a Chinese philanthropist and his company, New South, had already begun eradicating malaria from the small African nation of Comoros. Now they’re setting their sights on a more ambitious location: Kenya, the East African nation of nearly 50 million people.
As Western donors garner headlines for funding expensive, experimental malaria interventions, Chinese researchers are undertaking a far more tested approach. Called mass drug administration, or MDA, it involves giving antimalarial pills to every man, woman, and child in a given area all at once. Rather than kill off the world’s mosquitoes, which spread the disease by drawing blood from infected people, the thinking goes, why not simply wipe out malaria among humans?
If successful, the effort would ease the disease’s burden on Kenya’s health system and economy. But it would also showcase Chinese philanthropy in Africa, and may even help change the perception here that Chinese-made goods and medicine are of poor quality. Having recently surpassed the United States to become Africa’s leading trade partner, and with Chinese investment in Africa rising sixtyfold from $500 million to $32 billion in the last 15 years, Chinese cooperation in the continent’s science and public-health sectors may show the world that the country has far more to offer Africa than just roads, railways, and things.
China has employed MDA, along with other methods to fight malaria, at home since at least 1981; last year, for the first time in what is likely millennia, it saw no new native cases of the disease. But MDA is controversial for reasons of both science and ethics. There are concerns that it could lead to increased drug resistance, which could see malaria rise to levels not seen in decades. Others believe it’s unethical to give antimalarials to people who may not even have the disease—or who don’t wish to take them—though such qualms are dismissed in Kenya and elsewhere. Similar dilemmas are challenging U.S. policy makers as they debate how to respond to the rising anti-vax movement.