War on Parasites

Nicholas Kristof has more on Jimmy Carter’s efforts to combat parasitic infections in Africa, including campaigns against river blindness (caused by a different worm from the one responsible for Guinea Disease), elephantitis and malaria, intestinal worms, etc. Then comes the policy point:

Mr. Carter’s private campaign against the diseases of poverty, put together with pennies and duct tape, is a model of what our government could do. Imagine if the U.S. resolved that it would wipe out malaria and elephantiasis (both are spread by mosquitoes, so a combined campaign makes sense). What if we celebrated science not by trying to go to Mars but by extinguishing malaria? What if we tried to burnish America’s image abroad not only with press releases and propaganda broadcasts, but also with a bold campaign against disease?

So I wish that President Bush could visit villages like this and see what Mr. Carter has accomplished as a private individual. Mr. Bush, to his great credit, has financed a major campaign against AIDS that will save nine million lives, and he is also increasing spending against malaria — but not nearly as energetically as he is increasing the number of troops in Iraq. So I asked Mr. Carter whether President Bush should be pushing not for a possible war with Iran, but for a war on malaria.

I would hardly bother to criticize Bush on this point. Compared to other aspects of his administration, Bush’s “let’s try to cure diseases in Africa” policy has been pretty good (as Kristof said, involving some meaningful increases in some areas). Obviously, he should do more, but we’re talking about a really, really bad president so I don’t expect anything better from him. But for the next administration and peoples’ edification, these points are well worth considering. The marginal value of additional resources spent on these sorts of problems is pretty giant at this point, and it’s a lot clearer in a technical sense how you would go about helping people through public health measures than how you would go about building democracy or spurring economic development.