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Malaria captures attention of United Methodist leaders

Julian Hillyer of Vanderbilt University Institute for Global Health shows a container of mosquitoes to Alexandria Combs-Morgan and Arnold Parks, members of the United Methodist Commission on Communication. UMNS photos by Maile Bradfield.

By Deborah White*
Sept. 30, 2008 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

Vanderbilt University scientists helped United Methodist leaders confront a tiny killer of 2.7 million people a year—the mosquito that carries malaria.

In fact, the mosquito is a "mass murderer," concluded members of the global health committee of the United Methodist Commission on Communication after meeting with researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Institute for Global Health.

Five scientists presented to the committee their multi-faceted research into breaking the cycle of malaria. Their work includes studying how mosquitoes become infected with malaria, how they transmit malaria, what smells attract mosquitoes, how to prevent contact with humans and how to lure mosquitoes into traps. Scientists also gave a tour of the institute’s insectarium where they conduct experiments with eight species of African mosquitoes flown in as larvae from Africa.

The Rev. Greg Cox tours the insect lab. aaaa

"We went to hear about a serial killer. This little critter called the mosquito, it’s one of the most dangerous critters in the world," said the Rev. Greg Cox, during the committee’s Sept. 26 report to the full commission.


Scientists at Vanderbilt’s Institute for Global Health are "very passionate people involved in a process that will lead to the eradication of a killer disease," said Cox, pastor of College Hill United Methodist Church in Beaver Falls, Pa.

The United Methodist Church has identified global health and eradicating the killer diseases of poverty—including malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS—as one of the denomination's four areas of ministry focus. Out of that focus, the denomination has launched its Global Health Initiative, led by United Methodist Communications.

"The cycle of the disease is an important component," said Greg Nelson, a commissioner from Halsey, Ore., who chairs the Oregon-Idaho Conference Communications Committee. "We learned what they (mosquitoes) like, what they want to smell. They like limburger cheese!"

Scientists emphasized the word "sustainability" in reference to tools for eradicating malaria. "They are creating new systems—products like a no-fly zone. Mosquitoes would be attracted to pods outside a house," Cox said.

Finding the right tools

The visit to Vanderbilt helped commissioners understand that bed nets are important in preventing malaria.

Since 2006, the people of The United Methodist Church have been a partner in the Nothing But Nets campaign, which has raised more than $20 million to buy insecticide-treated nets to protect families from mosquitoes. "But to get to the point of eradication, we have to use more tools," Nelson said.

Hillyer talks about mosquito-
borne diseases during a
presentation on malaria.

Vanderbilt scientists emphasized that malaria is a disease of poverty. "In order to change people, we can’t just focus on health, but also social and economic development," said Alfredo Vergara, a Vanderbilt epidemiologist. "The impact of malaria worldwide is tremendous—300 million to 500 million people are living with malaria globally, most in sub-Saharan Africa."

The economic impact of malaria on the health care system is also large—about $14 billion annually, Vergara said. Yet only about 5 percent of the deaths from malaria occur in hospitals. "We only see the ears of the hippopotamus," he said.

Future interventions into malaria will include vaccines and genetic modifications, the scientists predicted.

"We are taking 21st-century science and using it to screen for better repellents," said researcher Larry Zweibel. "We want to create no-fly zones around people and huts." This could involve making traps of DDT mixed with substances that attract mosquitoes or make their sense of smell go into "overdrive."

Partnerships with local entrepreneurs could develop malaria-fighting chemicals, but the Vanderbilt scientists have signed off all rights to the World Health Organization. "We are not looking to make a profit. We want to make a difference," Zweibel said.

A 'foot in the door'

For United Methodists, the Nothing But Nets campaign "has gotten our foot in the door" in the fight against malaria, said Bishop Thomas Bickerton of Pittsburgh, a commission member who serves as a spokesperson for Nothing But Nets.

The Rev. Gary Henderson asks a
question during a malaria presentation
by Vanderbilt University scientists. aaaaaaaa

But eradicating malaria will be a cooperative effort involving thousands of players. "Nothing But Nets is just a tiny piece of this whole thing," Bickerton said.

"It’s got to be more than nets," echoed Bishop Sally Dyck of Minnesota, president of the United Methodist Commission on Communication.

An opportunity for United Methodists to expand the fight against malaria and other diseases of poverty will come through the Global Health Initiative, which was approved by the 2008 General Conference, the denomination's top legislative assembly. The goal in the next three to five years is to raise $75 million with another "challenge goal" of $25 million.

Bickerton was impressed with the work at Vanderbilt.

"The Global Health Initiative, if it’s going to be successful, has to be a comprehensive approach to making the world a healthier place for all of God’s children, and one of the places where we as United Methodists can learn is in the area of science and research," he said.

The institute is, in a sense, a partner with the church because both are recipients of Gates Foundation grant funds, Bickerton said.  He expressed hope that the church would distribute vaccines, repellents and medicines being developed at Vanderbilt.

"There was a wonderful spirit among those professors and scientists that they, too, have the same goal that we have," he said, "to make the world a better place for God’s children."

*White is associate editor of Interpreter magazine.

News media contact: Deborah White, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Video Interview with Bishop Thomas Bickerton

“The goal has been set by the U.N. to eradicate malaria by 2015.”

“None of us individually can solve this problem.”

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