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Houston Chronicle: Oil companies tackle malaria in Africa

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(As part of the annual health survey process, a random sampling a random sampling of Bioko Islandchildren under 15 years of age are tested for signs and symptoms of malaria. All children under the age of 15 and pregnant women are treated with combination therapy medications that are provided free to the patient as part of the case management component of the Bioko Island Malaria Control Project. Marathon Oil)

Nov. 5, 2006, 2:12AM

Life-saving social project a win-win for one nation and Marathon, Noble

Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — On Equatorial Guinea’s Bioko Island, parents had always prepared tiny graves for their children.

Malaria was so rampant in the West African nation, the child mortality rate so high, families had to brace themselves for all-too-familiar tragedy.

“It was so horrible,” said Ruben Biebeda Chucha, a Protestant minister who lives on Bioko.

Houston’s Marathon Oil Corp. and Noble Energy Corp. ventured to this impoverished nation four years ago with plans to help develop Equatorial Guinea’s rich natural gas reserves.

Soon, they were leading a $12.8 million effort to eradicate malaria. And three years into a five-year program, the partners report they have helped reduce malaria-spreading mosquitoes on the island by a “spectacular” 95 percent.

Operating in some of the remotest reaches of the globe, U.S. oil companies have taken on a host of social welfare projects, including slowing the spread of AIDS and helping farmers replant after years of civil war.

Companies become involved in such causes for a variety of reasons: to curry favor with host governments, to reduce the health risks for their workers and to maintain good relations with local communities.

Marathon officials hoped people on Bioko — one of five inhabited islands that are part of Equatorial Guinea — would “view us as someone who is making a positive impact and not just coming and extracting the commodity we produce and just leaving,” said Steven Hinchman, Marathon’s senior vice president of worldwide production.

The dangers of failing to win the support of local populations were evident last month, when villagers in Nigeria seized three oil installations in the Niger Delta owned by Royal Dutch Shell Group.

If a company is able to demonstrate good will “maybe that gets avoided,” Hinchman said.

And for many oil-field workers, confronted with the stark realities of the Third World, these programs offer a chance to help.

Doing business

Oil companies flocking to West Africa quickly saw the magnitude of the malaria problem.

The disease afflicts up to half a billion people around the world each year and kills 1 million to 3 million, said Dr. Steven Phillips, Exxon Mobil’s medical director for global issues and projects.

And sub-Saharan Africa accounts for the bulk of those cases.

“You would sometimes think oil was a deposit from dead mosquitoes,” Phillips said.

Equatorial Guinea caught the attention of the oil industry because of its prospects in the hydrocarbon-rich waters of the Gulf of Guinea. The former Spanish colony is now the third-largest oil producer in West Africa, exporting about 354,000 barrels a day in 2005, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported.

Marathon began doing business in Equatorial Guinea in 2002, after purchasing CMS Energy’s assets there. Marathon has invested $2.5 billion into the country and, with its partners, ranks as Bioko Island’s largest employer with 2,800 workers.

What Marathon officials found on Bioko was a population that, on average, contracted malaria twice a year. Children and pregnant women were most at risk.

Indeed, about one in five children was dying before 5, according to the World Health Organization.

Some 40 percent of childhood deaths on Bioko were attributable to malaria, Marathon officials said.

When a family member became gravely ill with malaria, many Bioko residents would go to church seeking divine intervention, Biebeda Chucha said. Others would “rush to the witch doctors.”

To address the problem, Marathon, Noble and their local partners enlisted the help of a consortium led by Medical Care Development International, a Maine-based nonprofit that works to improve health conditions in developing countries.

But there was some reluctance within the consortium about working with an international oil company, said Joseph Carter, director of Medical Care Development’s international division.

And like other nongovernmental organizations, Medical Care Development was leery of Equatorial Guinea and the regime of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

Ranked among the most corrupt nations in the world by Transparency International, Equatorial Guinea has a long history of human rights abuses.

The violence there has been so extreme that Equatorial Guinea once earned the moniker “Dachau of Africa,” author Adam Roberts noted in The Wonga Coup, a book about a failed plot to seize power in the country.

In 2004, a U.S. Senate panel, looking into alleged money laundering, tracked $35 million worth of oil money that was transferred to suspect offshore accounts.

Marathon and other oil companies, the panel said, may have “contributed to corrupt practices” in Equatorial Guinea.

Marathon officials conceded that after purchasing CMS Energy’s assets they learned they might be partners with an entity controlled by Obiang.

The Securities and Exchange Commission launched its own investigation. No one at Marathon has been accused of criminal wrongdoing, and few other details have emerged. “The SEC investigation continues, and we cannot comment further,” company spokesman Scott Scheffler said.

Jeff Holyfield, a spokesman for CMS, said that because the SEC has requested information about the operation in Equatorial Guinea, “we’re not discussing it publicly.”

Medical Care Development put its concerns aside. “The ultimate consensus was, without engaging we would not be able to effect change,” Carter said.

Spraying increased

They decided to tackle the malaria problem first on Bioko, where about 250,000, roughly half of Equatorial Guinea’s population, lives. Bioko also is where all offshore oil operations are based.

Malaria is caused by a parasite carried by female mosquitoes. When an infected mosquito bites a person, the insect injects the parasite into the victim’s bloodstream, bringing on the disease’s characteristic chills and high fever.

Mosquitoes need to land on a vertical surface to digest the blood they take from a human, said Dr. Adel Chaouch, Marathon’s director of corporate social responsibility.

So in February 2004, the malaria crews took their battle indoors, spraying insecticide on the walls of nearly 100,000 buildings on Bioko.

“Everybody wanted to be part of it,” said Biebeda Chucha, who helps encourage residents to participate in the program. “It was just like it was going to be done in a snap of the fingers and we’ll get rid of all of the mosquitoes and then never talk about malaria again in this part of the world. But it wasn’t so.”

The idea was to spray once every five years. But after the first year of spraying, experts realized the mosquito population was developing an immunity to the insecticide.

Officials realized they faced a “a situation worse than the one we found,” Carter said. They decided to switch to a different pesticide, one that required spraying every six months rather than once a year.

That change translated into higher cost. The partners ponied up an additional $1.5 million and conducted two spraying campaigns in 2005 and another pair this year.

The partners set up traps on different parts of the island.

And by tracking the number of mosquitoes capable of transmitting the disease caught in those traps, as well as the percentage actually bearing the parasite, the Marathon-led team says it is confident the population of dangerous mosquitoes has been slashed by 95 percent.

The partners also have been conducting annual health surveys of 1,000 households and report a 44 percent reduction in the presence of the malaria parasite for those younger than 15.

And for children and pregnant women who do contract the disease, the partners are paying the cost of a combination drug therapy that has proved more effective than older treatments.

Few would dispute

Marathon now is helping fund a project to combat the disease on Equatorial Guinea’s mainland, a more difficult proposition because residents there are more scattered.

Marathon and Noble are not the only oil companies to take up the fight against malaria.

Exxon Mobil has spent some $30 million over the past several years, helping to develop malaria medications for very young children, providing bed nets for families and helping develop better bed nets that, unlike older styles, retain their insecticide coatings for the long term.

Chevron Corp., operating in Angola, has been sending nurses out to homes of employees whose families frequently visit clinics seeking treatment for malaria. They offer advice on how to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds, apply screens and use bed nets properly.

Human rights activists such as Gavin Hayman of Global Witness, while noting “it’s good that people do things to improve public health,” question whether the malaria-eradication program makes up for the corruption that has funneled off money that should have benefited the people of Equatorial Guinea.

But few would dispute that the oil companies have effected a life-altering change on Bioko.

“You can see the smiles on people’s faces,” minister Biebeda Chucha said.


U.S. oil companies run a variety of social services projects in oil- and gas-producing nations:

• Apache Corp. is helping build 200 schools for girls in Egypt.

• Chevron Corp. has distributed nearly half a million agriculture kits to Angolan farmers returning to their homes after years of civil war.

• ConocoPhillips is loaning money to Indonesian farmers to help start rubber-tree plantations.

• Exxon Mobil Corp. is conducting an AIDS-prevention program in more than 20 countries.

Source: The companies

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