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WHO Reports Fragile Progress Against Malaria

  • Lisa Schlein

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that global malaria cases and deaths are down, but progress remains fragile. This year's World Malaria Report finds global mortality rates have fallen by more than 25 percent since 2000, and by 33 percent in Africa, the region most heavily affected by the disease.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says there were an estimated 216 million cases of malaria in 106 endemic countries and territories in 2010. Most of the cases and deaths occurred in the African Region. WHO says globally, 85 percent of the victims were children under age five.

The report finds 655,000 people died of malaria in 2010. This is 36,000 lower than the year before. While this is good progress, WHO officials say these mortality figures are too high for a disease that is entirely preventable and treatable.

The director of WHO's Global Malaria Program, Robert Newman, attributes the steady progress being made in the fight against malaria to an increase in funding. This past year, he says international malaria control programs received $2 billion, up from $1.7 billion in 2010.

He says this money has allowed a major scale-up of malaria control measures, including insecticide-treated mosquito nets, indoor residual spraying, diagnostic testing and effective treatments.

"The number of insecticide-treated bed nets delivered to malaria-endemic countries in Africa increased from 88 million in 2009 to 145 million in 2010," said Newman. "We can now say that an estimated 50 percent of households in Africa own at least one insecticide-treated bed net, which is up from just 3 percent at the beginning of the decade. We need to stop sometimes and remember where we were 10 years ago. It is a phenomenal improvement. And 96 percent of people who have access to a bad net actually use it. So these nets when they get into the hands of people, it makes a huge difference to their lives."

Newman says indoor residual spraying now reaches an estimated 185 million people worldwide, 85 million in the WHO African region.

Newman adds that more than twice as many people in Africa in 2010 received rapid diagnostic tests for malaria than was the case five years earlier. And many more people than before are receiving drugs to treat the disease.

But Newman warns nations have to be vigilant against emerging threats.

"Plasmodium falciparum resistance to artemisinins, to which we have spoken to you in the past, continues," Newman noted. "We do now have additional foci suspected in Vietnam and Myanmar, and those are concerning. But we do not have rapid spread around the globe. We have no evidence of artemisinin resistance in Africa at the current time. The problem of mosquito resistance to insecticides does appear to be growing. We have 45 countries now identified with resistance to at least one of the four classes of insecticide that we use to fight malaria, and 27 of those sites are in sub-Saharan Africa."

Newman says malaria control interventions work. But unless the problem of malaria deaths is fully tackled in the six countries with the greatest burden, then the world will not be able to reach the ambitious goal of achieving near zero malaria deaths by 2015.

He notes the six countries, Nigeria, Mali, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, and Ivory Coast, account for 60 percent of malaria deaths worldwide.