Malaria prevention advocates say many lives can be saved by removing taxes and tariffs from essential commodities used to fight the disease. Health ministers and representatives from the African Union, attending a meeting sponsored by the World Health Organization, have pledged to make these products more affordable by pushing for the elimination of trade barriers in all malaria-endemic countries.
A decade ago, 40 African heads of state agreed to roll back import barriers on medicines and other commodities used to prevent and treat malaria. Ten years later, only a handful of nations have lived up to their commitment to reduce or waive taxes and tariffs on these essential products.
So far, only five African nations - Guinea, Kenya, Mauritius, Tanzania and Uganda - and the Asian nation of Papua New Guinea have removed all tariffs on commodities that are effective in malaria control.
Director of the Malaria Taxes and Tariffs Advocacy Project, Halima Mwenesi, says removal of these trade barriers can play a critical role in reducing costs because the vast majority of commodities used to fight malaria are imported from overseas.
“They are imported from the manufacturing countries, which are either in Europe or Asia. By the time they get into the countries and you have markups from the private sector or then you have all the distribution costs, etc," Mwenesi said. "Then add on to that the tariffs and taxes, it becomes very difficult for people who are not necessarily making a lot of money to access these commodities.”
The commodities include insecticide-treated mosquito nets, artemisinin-based combination therapies, rapid diagnostic tests, insecticides for indoor residual spraying, and spray pumps.
The World Health Organization estimates 800,000 people died from malaria last year. Most of them were children and pregnant women in Africa.
The Assistant Minister for Public Health and Sanitation in Kenya, James Gesami, says malaria is the number one cause of death and hospitalization in his country. He says since Kenya removed all taxes and tariffs on malaria products, there has been a dramatic drop in the rate of fatality and disease.
“In fact, between 2002 and 2009, we have been able to reduce infant mortality by 44 percent," he said. "That is quite a significant kind of percentage. In the Lake region, where the great lakes, like Lake Victoria, where malaria is endemic, we have been able to reduce the percentage of infant deaths from malaria from 40 percent to 20 percent. That is quite significant.”
Malaria prevention and treatment advocates attending the WHO meeting say a major obstacle in getting nations to eliminate taxes and tariffs on malaria commodities is their fear of losing revenue. They say it is critical to convince them that these revenues are offset by health costs and lost productivity caused by preventable malaria illnesses.