African business takes on malaria

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — An African bank, communications giant and popular chicken restaurant chain are taking on malaria, saying Friday that their business expertise might be the missing weapon in the fight against a disease that kills 1 million annually.

South Africa's Standard Bank, cell phone company MTN and Nando's restaurants — all in business across Africa — say they know how to get information and services to customers despite Africa's weak infrastructure, and can use their experience to help fight against malaria.

As part of the United Against Malaria campaign, Standard Bank will provide its employees with nets and easier access to treatment, MTN will help deliver nets to areas that are difficult for distribution and Nando's will sell bracelets to raise awareness and funds.

The United Against Malaria campaign is an umbrella for aid groups using South Africa's World Cup as a platform to raise funds and spread messages about malaria treatment and prevention.

Africa is the continent hardest hit by malaria, and this will be the first World Cup held here. Nine of every 10 malaria deaths a year are in Africa, most of which are children.

Tony van der Nest, who directs Standard Bank's health programs, cited estimates that malaria reduces Africa's GDP by at least $12 billion every year. At Standard Bank, he said, work hours lost because some of its 10,000 employees across Africa were sickened by malaria cost the bank 45 million rand (about $6 million) last year.

Standard Bank has pledged to ensure its employees at risk of the disease have bed nets to protect them from malaria-carrying mosquitoes and access to treatment. He said the bank had not yet calculated what that would cost, but believed it would be much less than what it was losing due to malaria illnesses and deaths.

Tshepo Ramodibe, a senior MTN manager, said he believed the goal of halting malaria by 2015 was in reach, now that he is seeing increased cooperation among aid groups, governments and business.

Ramodibe said, however, bed nets sometimes sit in warehouses because aid groups can't distribute them. MTN, he said, has the "execution culture" necessary to get cell phone masts up across Africa, despite bad roads.

Christina Barrineau of United Against Malaria said Nando's, known for irreverent ads poking fun at South African politicians and mores, brought a "cool factor" to the effort that could spread messages further than finger-wagging from experts.

Chris Thorpe of Nando's said starting late next week, his company's restaurants across Africa and around the world would be selling beaded bracelets for about $3, with a dollar from every sale going to the Global Fund a major supporter of malaria, TB and AIDS projects around the world. The goal was to sell a million of the earth-toned bracelets this year, he said.

The bracelets are made by women in impoverished townships in South Africa who are earning about $200 a month from the project, Thorpe said.

Malaria infects some 300 million people every year around the world. Debilitating symptoms such as fever and joint pain keep sufferers from work and school.

Since 2000, when halting malaria by 2015 was declared one of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, progress has been fitful. When it comes to treatment, the United Nations says, "few countries have expanded coverage since 2000 and most patients often receive less effective medicines." The U.N. also has found that across much of sub-Saharan Africa, the percentage of children with symptoms who received anti-malaria medication dropped from 41 percent in 2000 to 34 percent in 2005.

Preventing and treating malaria is no mystery. Simple bed nets, and educating people about how to use them make a "significant contribution to reducing the burden of malaria," the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies concluded this year after studies in Burkina-Faso, Togo and Kenya. The U.N. says the number of nets produced worldwide jumped from 30 million in 2004 to 95 million in 2007.

Medecins Sans Frontieres, the international medical aid group also known as Doctors Without Borders, treats more than 1 million malaria patients every year, using sophisticated, easy to use diagnostic tests and a new generation of medication.