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Bill Gates Sends Mosquitoes Into Crowd

Whether or not you think Bill Gates is a sadist probably has a lot to do with whether or not you're a Vista user, but we can all agree that freeing a swarm of mosquitoes into an auditorium is downright cruel. Yet that's just what Microsoft's [MSFT] founder did yesterday at the ever-popular TED conference in California.

If you haven't heard of the TED (Technology, Entertainment & Design) conference, do yourself a favor and click here. With a countless number of experts in sundry fields pouring their brains out every year, watching the TED talks online is a profoundly educational (and addictive) experience.

Gates @ TED

In any case, Gates has been thinking a lot about mosquitoes since he retired from Microsoft to pursue philanthropy full-time. He brought a live batch of the annoying bugs to TED to send a message to the audience members, most of whom are prominent academics, artists, and politicians. In his own words: "Malaria is spread by mosquitoes. I brought some today.... There's no reason that only poor people should be infected."

That last part was a dark joke—spokespeople for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have confirmed that the mosquitoes Bill brought were malaria-free—but the stunt was clever for more than one reason. For one, Americans are unusually unaware of the danger of mosquito-borne viruses, because many of us live in temperate climates where mosquitoes only breed a few months out of the year. Not only that, we hide from them in climate-controlled, air-conditioned homes and cars, and fend them off with readily-available sprays, candles, and propane-powered things.

Gates has taken on malaria as a personal charge. He announced in September that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would provide $169 million to help develop a vaccine for the disease, through the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative.

But as Bill Gates well knows, malaria is contracted by up to half a billion people each year, and about two million of those people die from it. Most of these people aren't "people" at all, but young children living in the sub-Saharan region of Africa. The U.S., by comparison, has bout 1300 malaria cases each year, and about eight deaths. About 40% of the world's populace lives in a place where malaria is a concern, and the disease is ranked as the fourth-biggest killer of children in developing countries.

However, developing a vaccination for malaria is an exceedingly tricky task. Because human beings have been combating the disease for so long, it (and the mosquitoes that carry it) have developed resistance after resistance to common treatments and insecticides.

Like all plasmodia, the malaria parasite itself, P. falciparum, is also exceptionally well-positioned for immunity. It replicates extremely quickly, meaning that any effective remedies knock out weaker versions of the parasite and encourage the evolution of stronger ones.

The ray of hope that underpins initiatives like PATH is this: People who are exposed to the malaria parasite seem to develop immunity to it, and never exhibit clinical signs of being infected despite testing positive in a blood film analysis. Antibodies taken from immune adults can be processed and introduced into vulnerable adults, giving them some level of protection. Other vaccines also look promising, though there are disputes about how best to address the parasite once it has infected a host. The PATH initiative supports the development of a "portfolio" of potential vaccines.

But for as much technology as scientists are using to combat the parasite, another philanthropy—a personal favorite of mine—has taken a brilliant low-tech approach to decreasing the mortality rate of the disease. It's called Nothing But Nets, and it is a nonprofit that collects donations for the purchase of mosquito nets for children in sub-Saharan Africa. Each net only costs about $10, but as the foundation notes (and the CDC corroborated in Kenyan trials) nets are incredibly effective at preventing transmission of the disease. The fund has distributed about 2.3 million nets to date.

Microsoft to malaria might not seem like a natural transition for a software mogul, but Gates has eloquently described the jump in a video he posted on his foundation's website earlier this month. What he loved about Microsoft, he said, was the opportunity for breakthroughs, something he hopes there'll be no shortage of in the race to fight malaria. He also says he enjoys the similar sense of urgency to the problems of malaria and the problems of software development (though the comparison might not be perfect.) And, he says, the problem is a good fit for his brain: pulling together teams and governing parallel developments is, he says, an essential part of both biotech and software development.

Let's hope that brain still has some juice left; a cure for malaria will take all of it.