This week: malaria Although I am a Hongkonger born and bred, I was in Australia for 17 years to study. Since my return I have improved on my Cantonese and can now speak fluently, and have well and truly been absorbed into the nation's culture and causes. But my family's background is much blurrier. I am a first-generation Hongkonger. My parents were born and raised in a rural, almost pre-industrial area. My father was raised in Punyi, Guangdong province. It is now a bustling urban industrial centre, but when my father was young, it was dominated by rice and vegetable fields. Life was a constant struggle to meet the quotas set by the government. My mother was raised in rural Vietnam. She was forced to leave the country due to war and strife. It was as a refugee that she met my father and emigrated to Hong Kong, where they had my sister and me. I grew up listening to my father and mother's stories of their past. Their stories seemed so foreign and out of this urban world, more like past lives rather than a continuation of their current ones. They would tell me how simple life was back then, but their simple lives always had an undertone of tragedy. My mother saw her home bombed three separate times in her life, and my father's psyche was very much affected by the imperial Japanese war in China. Even at the end of his life he was paranoid about the Japanese. Even though my parents grew up in different impoverished countries, there was always one constant in their stories - disease, in particular malaria. Malaria causes poverty and poverty is a cause of malaria. My parents saw many of their family members and friends die from this horrible mosquito-borne disease, which is common around rice paddies and swampland where there is standing water. The disease has been eradicated in rich urbanised areas, where sustained campaigns of treatment and destruction of mosquito breeding grounds have been successful. But in rural areas all around the equator it lurks and waits for its opportunity. Many of the poor are unable to afford treatment if they contract malaria because the drugs are quite expensive. We use some of these drugs to treat malaria-like diseases in dogs. The most expensive drug on my shelf at the moment is an anti-malaria drug. In poor areas where people can't afford treatment, the disease incubates in people and when a mosquito bites them and moves on to a neighbour, it transmits the disease, so poverty causes malaria. In countries where the disease is endemic, up to 60 per cent of government spending can be used up fighting malaria, so malaria perpetuates poverty. It is estimated that 1 million people die from malaria and about 250 million are infected every year. These estimates probably grossly underestimate the true mortality and morbidity rates, since many people who die from malaria have no access to medical facilities and hence the details of their death are not recorded. Although the disease is rife throughout the tropics, 90 per cent of the deaths from it occur in sub-Saharan Africa. In some countries, such as Vietnam, urban areas are almost free of the disease, but it still occurs in rural areas. Malaria not only feeds off poverty, it tends to thrive alongside other endemic diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV. The drug company GlaxoSmithKline has a vaccine called RTS,S that seems to work for malaria. It is in what they call phase II trials. Some 894 children in Kenya and Tanzania have been vaccinated with RTS,S and compared with a group of children who received a rabies placebo vaccine. Those who received the RTS,S vaccine had a 53 per cent decrease in the rate of malarial infection compared to the other group. If all goes well, the vaccine could be in production by 2011. This vaccine has the potential to save half a million lives a year. That is the best news I have heard in quite awhile. In the meantime, this is not the only effort in the fight against malaria. Two charity organisations, Nothing But Nets and Against Malaria, are dedicated to raising public awareness about preventing malaria and providing mosquito nets for beds to prevent infection. These bed nets are probably the cheapest way to help prevent malaria. They are treated with an insecticide that doubles the efficacy of the nets. Another charity giant is The Global Fund, which aims to provide resources to those affected by disease and to those fighting the war against tuberculosis, HIV and malaria. So, get some good karma: don't complain about the financial crisis, donate to these charities and help save lives.