SEATTLE (Reuters) - Eradicating malaria is not a vague, unrealistic aspiration but a tough, ambitious goal that can be reached within the next few decades, the billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates said on Tuesday.
In an interview with Reuters at his Gates Foundation's Malaria Forum in Seattle, the Microsoft founder who now spends his time and money on global health and development projects rejected skepticism about focusing his aim on wiping out the killer mosquito-borne disease worldwide.
"It's not a near-term goal," Gates said, but one that can "certainly" be achieved within his lifetime.
"I'd be disappointed if within 20 years we're not very close to eradicating this globally," he said.
Malaria currently kills about 780,000 people a year -- the vast majority of them children and babies in sub-Saharan Africa -- and is endemic in about 100 countries.
Gates said a renewed focus and substantial increases in funding for malaria, partly spurred by his call in 2007 for global eradication of the disease, was steadily "shrinking the malaria map" and would continue to do so.
He pointed to Madagascar, Papua New Guinea and Ethiopia as "likely early candidates" for being able to eliminate the disease from within their borders in the near future.
Giving a boost to anti-malaria efforts was news on Tuesday of an experimental vaccine from GlaxoSmithKline that halved the risk of African children getting malaria.
However experts stressed the vaccine was no quick fix for eradicating malaria. The new shot is less effective against the disease than other vaccines are against common infections such as polio and measles.
Gates' eradication call in 2007 -- the first time the "e-word" was revived since a global malaria eradication push launched in 1955 faltered and failed -- was seen by some experts in the field as an unwelcome and fanciful notion.
During the previous global eradication effort, the disease was eliminated in many wealthy countries, But when the political commitment and funding faded, malaria roared back across Africa, and in parts of Asia and South America.
Critics now fear that an emphasis on a distant goal of wiping out the disease worldwide will divert money and energy away from efforts to effectively control the disease and focus on bringing death rates and case numbers down.
According to Gates, this is not an either-or situation.
"I don't see eradication and control as two separate approaches," he said in a speech to delegates at the Malaria Forum conference. "To achieve elimination and eradication, we need to start with control, drive it up to very high levels, and sustain it."
About 300 leading malaria scientists, global health leaders, policymakers and advocates attended the three-day conference, where Gates and other speakers highlighted progress made in the fight against malaria and urged the international community to keep up the fight.
According to a recent report by the Roll Back Malaria group, more than a million African children have been saved from the disease since 2000 and annual funding to fight malaria rose to $1.5 billion in 2010 from about $100 million in 2003.
World Health Organisation's (WHO) malaria experts said on Monday that a third of the 108 malarial countries are now on track to wipe out the disease within the next decade.
Gates urged skeptics to consider not just the potential for saving lives, but the eventual reductions in costs and the new opportunities lives saved
"The damage this disease does is quite incredible," he told Reuters. "And if you can achieve eradication in a particular country, it's phenomenal -- because it means you're not constantly funding insect spraying, and buying new nets when they wear out, getting malaria drugs in or buying diagnostics."
Despite the gains made in the fight against malaria, experts say the reality of the disease in much of Africa remains grim.
The WHO says African children under five years old accounted for 85 percent of the 781,000 malaria deaths in 2009, and the disease also costs the continent an estimated $12 billion annually in lost productivity.
"The parasite has been killing children and sapping the strength of whole populations for tens of thousands of years," Gates said. "Now we can chart a course to end it."
Editing by Matthew Jones