The World Health Organization has certified China, the most populous country in the world, as malaria-free.
It has taken China seven decades to reach this milestone. The country has gone from 30 million cases of malaria in the 1940s to zero cases today.
Director of the World Health Organization’s Global Malaria Program Pedro Alonso tells VOA the achievement should act as an inspiration to other malaria endemic countries around the world.
“China, that at one point had 30 million cases of malaria every year and I would place that country among the top two burdened countries in the world can actually drive down malaria and get rid of this scourge of mankind,” Alonso said.
China is the first country in the WHO Western Pacific Region to be awarded a malaria-free certification in more than three decades. Other countries in the region that have achieved that status include Australia, Singapore, and Brunei.
Globally, 40 countries and territories have been declared malaria-free. The most recent include El Salvador, Algeria, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uzbekistan.
Eliminating malaria is a long, complex process involving many factors. Alonso says economic development, improvement in peoples’ living conditions and the implementation of measures aimed at preventing, controlling, and treating malaria are critical for success.
“Vector control mostly through insecticide-treated bed nets will for the years to come remain the backbone of our prevention efforts. Artemisinin combination therapies will remain the backbone of our treatment efforts,” Alonso said.
The WHO estimates there are still 229 million new cases of malaria annually, leading to more than 400,000 deaths. Africa is home to 94 percent of those cases and deaths.
Alonso says the mosquito in Africa is very effective in the transmission of malaria. This he says is one of the many reasons why it is particularly challenging to rid the continent of the disease.
“And of course, all of this is compounded by lack of economic and social development, difficulties in communication, poverty, housing, lack of electricity. So, it is a compounded effect. It is where China was 60 years ago…and, we are having a lot of difficulty, even to maintain the gains achieved over the last 20 years,” Alonso said.
While substantial progress in the prevention and control of malaria is possible with today’s available tools, Alonso says only a highly effective vaccine can eradicate the disease.
The WHO malaria chief says he is cautiously optimistic that such a vaccine is on the horizon. He notes a pilot project to develop the world’s first malaria vaccine, RTS,S, in three countries in sub-Saharan Africa, has been shown to provide partial protection against malaria in young children.
He says the vaccine, which was introduced in 2019, is likely not to be the hoped-for game changer everyone seeks. But he adds it is a very good start.