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Leadership interview: Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland looks back on a decade of progress in malaria control

Interview with Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, Former WHO Director-General

[RBM leadership interview conducted by Katya Halil, Communications Officer, Roll Back Malaria Partnership Secretariat, September 2011]

"Upon her election as Director General of WHO in 1998, Gro Harlem Brundtland announced that one of her priorities would be a new effort to "roll back malaria". In support of African regional initiatives the intention was "to approach malaria in a new way" and to halve malaria-related mortality by 2010. Dr Bruntland's leadership was soon followed by a substantial and high-level international response from other leaders. (…) In November 1998, the Roll Back Malaria (RBM) Partnership was launched by WHO, the World Bank, UNICEF and the United Nations Development Programme (UN DP)".
Excerpt from Roll Back Malaria Partnership: A Decade of Partnership and Results

Upon the occasion of the launch of a Roll Back Malaria report describing the achievements of the malaria community between 2001 and 2010, Dr Brundtland, one of the main architects of the RBM partnership, gave the following interview to mark a decade of leadership, solidarity and collaboration in the fight against malaria.

Q: Throughout your exceptional career, you championed a wide variety of issues focused on health and the environment. When you took office as Director General of the World Health Organization, why did you make malaria one of the organization's priorities?

When I travelled to Africa in 1997 in preparation for my candidature as Director General of WHO, I asked health ministers what their most serious health problem was. They all answered malaria. Therefore, we made malaria a top priority in my team.

Q: RBM was created and conceptualized under your leadership. What was your vision for this initiative?

The key concept of RBM was a) to make it cut across most of the WHO divisions such as health systems, emergencies, pharmaceuticals etc so that each could contribute to malaria to avoid duplication and b) to have a small coordinating team that reported directly to me and my cabinet as a cabinet project, and c) to make it a partnership with other stakeholders like Unicef and the World Bank.

Q: A report will soon be launched describing how excellent progress was achieved in the fight against malaria over the last decade. How do you feel about these results? Back in 1998, did you think the malaria community would achieve as much as it has today?

We did of course think we could make an important difference otherwise we would not have selected malaria as a top priority. I am pleased to see the progress made.

Q: What would you say are the factors for success in malaria control? What lessons can the international community draw from this experience?

A sound scientific and technical base, adequate finances and strong political commitment and leadership. Thanks to WHO, RBM and its partners, The Global Fund, ALMA and others we have seen progress on all these fronts. However, the malaria parasites and the malaria mosquitoes are formidable enemies so we need good surveillance and stay vigilant in order to avoid setbacks.

Q: Malaria eradication is now back on the international development and research agenda. What is your response to this?

We coined the term Roll Back Malaria deliberately in order not to give false hopes as we did not consider malaria eradication possible at that time. Even today I wonder if we have the technical base to eradicate malaria. If we could save people of dying from malaria that would in itself be a formidable achievement.