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The political activity in the build-up to World Malaria Day on April 25 has belied a recent drop in funding and a slowdown in progress tackling what remains one of the globe's most devastating infectious diseases. 

With London hosting a malaria summit on the sidelines of the Commonwealth heads of government gathering, there was no shortage of speeches about the need for redoubled efforts. Yet progress has stalled — there were 445,000 deaths in 2016, just one thousand fewer than the year before — a high proportion of them in Commonwealth countries led by Nigeria and India

Many of the fresh pledges were repackaged versions of existing commitments, although there have been strong exceptions such as Zambia, which has sharply increased domestic funding and whose strong leadership has led to a drop in cases. Other countries need to follow — with firm accountability, finance and continued research in the face of resistance to drugs, insecticides and diagnostics alike.

Read the FT special report: Combating malaria
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Three questions

Monsignor Tomasz Trafny, head of the Vatican's Science and Faith Foundation, is organising a global health conference on April 26-28 and spoke to FT Science Editor Clive Cookson.

What is the aim of the Fourth International Vatican Conference?

We started working eight years ago with Dr Robin Smith, president of the Cura Foundation, on our mission to convene decision makers in healthcare, business, media, medicine, advocacy and faith. We aim to work together to improve access to healthcare, increase investment in research and innovation, encourage multidisciplinary collaboration and help grow healthy communities. This is not a typical scientific conference. Rather we challenge researchers to translate their sophisticated knowledge into language accessible to those who have no scientific background. We will unite people to collaborate without prejudice in an interdisciplinary global effort to “prevent, repair, cure and prepare for the future”.

Many people associate the Catholic Church with anti-science attitudes. How can you change their mind?

For centuries the Church was deeply involved with science, supporting research and encouraging the investigation of nature. There are many misconceptions about what the Church supports. The Vatican Observatory is one of the world’s oldest astronomical institutions, with its own team of astronomers running the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope in Arizona. The Church is the largest non-government provider of health services, running more than 25 per cent of the world’s healthcare facilities. Supporting medical research is a moral imperative for Catholicism, since the Gospel of Luke offers us the evangelical figure of the good Samaritan as an example to follow. The more sensitive we are to the needs of those who suffer, the more supportive we should be towards research that may eventually bring concrete solutions to the patients.

The most exciting new biotechnology tool is Crispr, which opens the door to extensive gene editing. Are you more excited or worried about its potential?

I don’t think we should fear or worry because such tools are available. We should rather be grateful for their potential to treat countless diseases and severe medical conditions. In that sense, gene editing can make a difference for many patients and we look at it with hope. Of course this will not avoid some important ethical and anthropological questions. Some claim that tools like Crispr will eventually lead to the point where we face a specifically-designed human phenotype or even genotype. The Church needs to make a journey with the research community to understand what these advancements mean. I am one of those who share the idea that it’s time to build bridges and foster a dialogue between science, faith and culture, instead of raising walls.


Chartwatch

Multimorbidity multiplies A report showing rapid growth in people with several long-term diseases at the same time has been described as a “tipping point” for recognising that multimorbidity is an enormous threat to global health. (Academy of Medical Sciences, FT)


FT events

New York, May 10: US Healthcare and Life Sciences Summit. Discuss the latest industry trends and their implications: from gene therapies to the rise in digital treatments, can we afford the age of biology and high tech? Discount of 20 per cent for FT Health subscribers with code Health. Details here.

London, May 21: Is the air poisoning us? Air pollution across the world is responsible for 6.5m premature deaths a year. But as evidence of its toll on health grows, so do public awareness and campaigning. Join us for an evening discussion with experts from industry, policy and health and chat with FT journalists. Details and tickets here. Use discount code FTHEALTHREADER.


News round-up

Global health spending A report on health expenditure shows how large increases in HIV/Aids spending since 2000 have helped lessen fears of a global crisis. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation's interactive tool shows patterns of financing from 1990 and projections to 2040. (IHME) 

Beyond the bombs As in Syria, the war in Yemen has led to thousands of deaths as health systems collapse, but longer-term there could be an even greater danger: antibiotic-resistant diseases. Aid organisations need to build in surveillance and infection-control as part of their response. The Lancet warned of attacks on health facilities becoming the new norm. (NYT, The Lancet)

Typhoid terror The first known outbreak of drug-resistant typhoid is ravaging Pakistan and worrying health officials. “Antibiotic resistance is a threat to all of modern medicine — and the scary part is, we’re out of options.” (NYT)

Yellow fever fears The biggest outbreak in modern times of yellow fever in Brazil means vaccine supplies are running low with fears the disease might spread to crowded cities. Authorities in Miami are worried it could jump the border in the same way as the Zika virus — yellow fever is spread by the same mosquito. (NPR, Reuters)

Pharma frenzy The busiest ever run of pharma acquisition activity continued as Irish drugmaker Shire rejected a £42.4bn takeover from Japanese rival Takeda and Botox-maker Allergan disclosed it had also considered pitching in. A deal would rank as one of the largest ever in the sector, just behind Pfizer’s takeover of Warner Lambert in 2000. (FT)

Cancer cheer Hopes rose that immunotherapy could replace chemotherapy to treat lung cancer patients after Merck announced successful trial results. The treatment works by encouraging the body's immune system to attack tumours. Rival Bristol- Myers Squibb said it was still in the race, saying the two companies were "the Coke and Pepsi in lung cancer". (FT, Bloomberg)

Smoke signals Tobacco titan Philip Morris suffered its worse share fall in ten years thanks to a mixture of slowing cigarette demand from more health-conscious consumers and disappointing growth in its alternative heated-tobacco products. Other tobacco stocks were also hit. (FT)

Investing in HIV drugs Western pharma countries face high costs in developing HIV/Aids drugs for Africa, but these can be mitigated by measures such as tax credits, increased subsidies in return for market guarantees and more transparency on drug efficacy. (Brookings)

Hope on opioids A fall in US prescriptions for opioids suggests preventative policies are bearing fruit. The 12 per cent drop in 2017 was attributed to several factors including new regulations. But overdose deaths from illicit use of injectable heroin are still increasing. (FT)

Gene genies A video series documents the rise of genetic technologies in health, from sequencing the human genome to gene therapy to consumer products helping you find everything from a date to your perfect type of wine. (Stat)

Food fights India is planning colour-coded labels on packaged foods to indicate fat, sugar and salt contents — as well as genetically-modified ingredients. Separately, the International Coffee Organization is fighting back after a Californian judge said coffee shops were failing to point out potential cancer risks. In the UK, celebrity chef launched a campaign to tackle junk food ads aimed at kids. (The Hindu, Reuters, Jamie Oliver.com

Highlighting drug dangers The Cincinnati Enquirer won a Pulitzer Prize for its multimedia work documenting a week in the city's heroin epidemic. The Scottish parliament voted for softer drug laws to allow "fix rooms" on concerns about rising drug deaths and HIV infections among addicts. (Cincinnati Enquirer, FT)


Best from the Journals

Monitoring AMR A new network is enabling international mapping of antimicrobial resistance in hospitals in poorer countries. Pneumonia is the condition most treated with antibiotics, accounting for 19 per cent of prescriptions. (The Lancet)

Maternal health in Islamic states Muslim-majority countries score poorly on indicators of maternal, newborn and adolescent health, reflecting a mixture of conflict, political instability and lack of empowerment for women. (The Lancet)

Air pollution A new initiative — the Eastern African GEOHealth hub — aims to fill a gap in research about biomass burning which is Africa's main source of air pollution, that in turn is the world’s biggest environmental killer. (Nature)

Preconception health The diet and lifestyle of both parents can have serious implications for a child's health — even before it is conceived. Better guidance is needed for those planning a pregnancy, especially around nutrition. (The Lancet)

Health advocacy Public health organisations need to step up their efforts at “social lobbying” — a discipline solely aimed at protecting and furthering the greater social good — if they are ever to compete with the corporate sector's efforts. (The Lancet)


Podcast of the week

Conflicts of interest Potential financial conflicts are usually flagged in research articles, but should intellectual and political interests also be made clear? A discussion with ethics and legal specialists. (BMJ Talk Medicine, 35m)


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Final thought

Loneliness is lethal Loneliness is reaching alarming proportions in Britain and significantly increases the chances of an early death. Is it time we recognised the issue as a public health emergency? (The Conversation)

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