GENEVA— The World Health Organization (WHO) says malaria is preventable, treatable and can be defeated. In marking World Malaria Day, which falls on April 25, WHO says investing in malaria control pays big dividends in terms of improved health and economic development.
Malaria is a major cause of death and illness. Globally, the World Health Organization reports some 3.3 billion people are at risk of this disease, primarily in Africa.
Although malaria - a mosquito-borne parasitic infection of the blood - is preventable and treatable, WHO notes it continues to infect more than 200 million people and kill an estimated 660,000 every year. Most of these deaths are among children under the age of five, 90 percent of whom are in Africa.
But, these painful statistics belie the enormous advances that are being made in malaria control. The United Nations reports the MDG or Millennium Development Goal target of halting and reversing the incidence of malaria is now in sight. It says 50 countries are on track to reduce their malaria burden by at least 75 percent by 2015.
WHO’s Executive Director of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, Dr. Fatoumata Nafo-Traore, says malaria control interventions are effective when used in an integrated manner. She says prevention, rapid diagnosis and treatment measures must all be available at the same time.
“So that you use bed nets or spraying the houses so that you bring down the density of the vector [disease carrier]," said Nafo-Traore. "Then you reduce the transmission of the disease. While doing prevention, you need to continue treating those who are affected. And to be able to treat them, you need to diagnose.”
WHO notes these global anti-malaria efforts have succeeded in preventing 1.1 million deaths and averting 274 million cases between 2001 and 2010. WHO reports 14 endemic countries (countries where malaria thrives) account for 80 percent of all malaria cases, with 40 percent of the malaria burden in three countries - the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and India.
Dr. Nafo-Traore says progress in controlling malaria is slowing because the funding is drying up. She says an annual shortfall of $3 billion is starting to slow the scale-up of key malaria interventions in Africa.
She says $3.6 billion is needed immediately to be able to maintain universal coverage of malaria control interventions in Africa through 2015.
Studies show malaria places an enormous burden on African economies, resulting in massive losses to economic growth.
Dr. Nafo-Traore says investing in malaria means investing in development. She says the return is high and cost is low.
“Personally, I do not see a best investment than this one," she said. "If you put $1 in malaria control, the return on investment is $46 U.S. If you look at the cost to prevent, to treat and to diagnose…It is $5.5, yup $5.5 U.S.”
Among the most serious challenges ahead is the emerging resistance of the malaria parasite to drugs, and mosquitoes to insecticides. The U.N. health agency is worried that growing resistance to Artemisnin-based Combination Therapies, the most effective anti-malarials on the market, is emerging in Asia-Pacific.
The World Health Organization warns hard won gains in combating malaria could unravel, if resistance were to spread to other regions.