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WHO Stands by Its Numbers on Malaria Deaths

WHO Stands by Its Numbers on Malaria Deaths
WHO Stands by Its Numbers on Malaria Deaths
Lisa Schlein

The World Health Organization disputes a new study that claims nearly twice as many people are dying of malaria than current estimates.  The study, which appears in the British health journal The Lancet, reports 1.24 million people died of malaria in 2010 compared to WHO estimates of 655,000 deaths.  

The World Health Organization says both its estimates of malaria deaths and those of the Lancet study are statistically the same for all groups in all regions, with one exception.  WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl says there’s a notable statistical difference in regard to children over five and adults in Africa.  

He says the two groups used different methodologies and different sources of data in arriving at their conclusions.

The Lancet used in its study verbal autopsies… basically, there is no diagnosis done in laboratory or after death of how a person actually died," said Hartl. "You rely on the verbal record of a friend or relative saying that X person died of fever, for example.  However, we know that there are many different diseases which cause fever.”  

Hartl notes it is believed that most people who survive malaria in the first five years of life have a much higher immunity to this mosquito-borne disease later in life.  Therefore, he adds, in most cases, diseases other than malaria are the most likely causes of death among adults.  

The WHO spokesman says it is important to look more carefully at the sources and the quality of data before arriving at conclusions.  He says the emphasis of malaria work in the future will aim to improve diagnostic testing, surveillance and vital statistic registration.  

These three elements together, he says will improve the veracity and accuracy of the estimates obtained.

“The data on which The Lancet estimates causes that data to be much less sure than what we would believe the data should be, so we would say again that the majority and the great majority of deaths would be in children under five and we stand by our estimates," he said.

Despite these disputed claims, Hart says both the WHO and Lancet study agree that global death rates from malaria are falling due to better treatment, prevention and control measures.

The World Health Organization estimates that every year, about 250 million people become infected with malaria.  It says most of the 655,000 deaths are among children under five in Africa.  

It says early diagnosis and treatment can prevent these deaths.  WHO says the distribution of hundreds of millions of insecticide-treated bed nets to people at risk of malaria has prevented many people from contracting the deadly disease.

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