A girl in Madagascar holding a packaged insecticide-treated bed net distributed by Malaria No More and Sumitomo Chemical. (Photo courtesy Malaria No More)

It could be a photograph of naptime at a day-care center: Eyes closed, the children lie quietly, side by side. But these children never will wake up — their sleep is coma-induced by malaria, a mosquito-borne illness that kills a million people a year.

Wendy (Berry) McWeeny ’92 *98 saw that photograph more than four years ago, as her boss, businessman-turned-philanthropist Ray Chambers, researched ways to expand his anti-poverty efforts beyond his New Jersey base. By December 2006, McWeeny and two other Princetonians, Jennifer Cho ’94 and Alexandra Wilson ’99, had helped Chambers and a co-founder launch the nonprofit Malaria No More, which applies entrepreneurial business principles to the ambitious goal of eliminating malaria deaths worldwide by 2015.

Malaria is “the lowest-hanging fruit in the world of public health and extreme poverty,” says Wilson, Malaria No More’s marketing director. Malaria’s toll on productivity, tourism, and development reduces the gross domestic product of sub-Saharan Africa by $12 billion a year, a recent study found, but a few inexpensive interventions could prevent most cases of the disease. The insecticide-treated bed net, which costs only $10 and protects the two people who sleep under it from lethal mosquito bites, has become a potent symbol of the cause.

Already, several African countries have used bed nets, medication, and indoor insecticide spraying to slash their malaria mortality rates. “We know how to combat malaria,” says Cho, Malaria No More’s development director.

Malaria No More calls itself “a catalyst for impact,” targeting its investments of time and money — whether in pushing for a government summit conference or helping fund bed-net distribution programs —  for maximum effect. Two years into the effort, the three Princetonians have found different niches. Cho raises money. McWeeny serves as chief of staff to Chambers, now the U.N. secretary general’s first-ever special envoy for malaria. And Wilson spreads the word, enlisting celebrity spokespeople and seeking high-profile publicity. A segment onAmerican Idol’s charity telethon raised $17 million for bed nets. 

The women did not meet at the University, and they took different paths to Malaria No More. McWeeny’s nonprofit career began before graduation, with jobs she landed through the alumni-sponsored Princeton Project 55, which steers students toward public service. She was already working for Chambers when he became interested in supporting the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals, aimed at reducing poverty, hunger, and disease worldwide by 2015. McWeeny hired Wilson, who had begun her career in the dot-com world but switched fields after business school. Cho, a longtime nonprofit fundraiser, came aboard soon after. And Chambers’ millennium goals organization quickly spun off Malaria No More.

Only two years old, Malaria No More still has a startup’s frenetic energy: 12-hour days and work-filled weekends are the norm. But the urgency of the task keeps burnout at bay. “Three thousand children a day die of malaria,” McWeeny says. “It’s impossible to live in a world where that’s happening, when we know it doesn’t have to.”  

Deborah Yaffe is a writer in Princeton Junction, N.J