WHO: Malaria deaths of young children cut by half, but gains 'fragile'

Latest malaria study finds 54% reduction in malaria deaths of African children, the most vulnerable group

Former President George W. Bush, shown on a 2008 tour of a Tanzanian mill, was instrumental in funding anti-malarial efforts.
Charles Ommanney/Getty

The rate of malarial deaths in children under the age of 5 has been cut by more than 50 percent, due to increases in U.S. and African funding coupled with the spread of inexpensive prevention and control measures, according to the World Health Organization’s annual malaria report released on Wednesday.

The increasingly widespread distribution of insecticide-laden mosquito nets and affordable medication have plummeted mortality rates among children under 5 — the age group most vulnerable to malaria death — by 51 percent since 2000. Overall, the death rate has dropped 45 percent among all age groups and 3.3 million lives have been saved since 2000.

Martin Edlund, CEO of Malaria No More, called the progress cited in the report “a historic moment in the malaria fight.”

“We’re talking about one of the top three killers in kids worldwide, a disease that’s been with us since the dawn of man and by some accounts has killed more people in human history than any other disease, and we’ve finally cut deaths by malaria in half,” he said.

Malaria, which is spread through mosquito bites, causes up to two weeks of high fever, chills, and vomiting and can be fatal if left untreated. Children are particularly vulnerable as they have not developed any immunity to the disease. The most severe form of malaria — cerebral  malaria — causes convulsions, coma and death in 93 percent of children affected, according to the organization Nets for Life.

Deaths attributed to malaria worldwide, 2012.
Malaria Global Mapper

Half the world’s population — or 3.4 billion people — are at risk for malaria, and most of them live in the poorest countries. The center of the disease is sub-Saharan Africa, where ninety percent of malaria deaths occur in part due to a vector species of mosquito with a proclivity for biting humans.

But treatment for malaria is cheap — about $1 per infected person in the form of artemisin-based combination therapy, or ACT— and because mosquitos bite at night, bed nets impregnated with insecticide have proven highly effective at preventing the disease. Rapid diagnostic tests have also developed in the past few years, enabling people to determine if they have been inflicted by the malaria parasite without traveling great distances to a doctor.

The WHO and relief groups attribute the cutback in malaria deaths to a concerted effort over the last decade by donor governments to provide malaria-ridden countries with these nets, tests, and treatments — tools that have been around for years but only recently widely available across sub-Saharan Africa.

A key moment in the battle against the disease came in 2002, when then U.S. President George W. Bush launched the Global Fund, which raised over $22 billion dollars in its first 10 years to combat AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria around the world. The President’s Malaria Initiative was launched three years later and to date has procured more than 189 million ACT treatments and 82 million mosquito nets for sub-Saharan Africa.

That funding has increasingly been matched by governments of the endemic countries themselves — African countries have raised more than $500 million dollars to fight malaria to date. “Ultimately, this fight is going to be won in those malaria endemic countries by the people affected and their leaders,” said Edlund of Malaria No More.

A medical breakthrough might be on the horizon, too: GlaxoSmithKline announced in October that it was in the late stages of clinical trials for a vaccine that decreased malaria incidence by nearly half.

But the battle is far from won. “This remarkable progress is no cause for complacency: absolute numbers of malaria cases and deaths are not going down as fast as they could,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, in the report.

WHO data indicate that 627,000 people died of malaria in 2012 out of 207 million reported cases, the majority of whom were children in Africa. Though malaria deaths among African children have been reduced by 54 percent since 2013, an African child still dies approximately every minute from the disease.

And “the remarkable gains against malaria are still fragile,” said Dr Robert Newman, Director of the WHO Global Malaria Program, in a press release. The WHO notes that a funding hiccup in 2012 caused only 70 million of the more than 150 million insecticide-treated bed nets needed to arrive in sub-Saharan Africa last year. Though that shortage was rectified in 2013, aid groups say Africa can ill afford another funding choke.

“If you take your foot off the gas, you’ll see that malaria springs back very quickly,” said Edlund.

Al Jazeera

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