April 25 marks “World Malaria Day,” which is celebrated every year to recognize global efforts to control the disease, to commemorate those who have been affected by it, and to highlight the need for continued investment in and sustained political commitment to malaria prevention and control.
Malaria has long been one of the major killer diseases of our age and remains a huge public health problem, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. One child dies from malaria every 2 minutes. Roughly 93% of malaria cases and 94% of deaths worldwide occur in Sub-Saharan Africa, with children in the region often suffering through multiple bouts of the disease before they reach the age of five. Pregnant women who contract the disease can also suffer serious health complications.
Between 2000 and 2014, the number of malaria-related deaths fell by 40% worldwide, from an estimated 743 000 to 446 000. But in recent years, progress has ground to a standstill. According to WHO’s World malaria report 2019, there were no global gains in reducing new infections over the period 2014 to 2018. The estimated number of malaria deaths in 2018 stood at 405 000, a similar number to the previous year.
While progress in the global response to malaria has levelled off, a subset of countries with a low burden of malaria is moving quickly towards elimination. In 2018: 49 countries reported fewer than 10 000 indigenous malaria cases, up from 40 countries in 2010. 27 countries reported fewer than 100 malaria cases, up from 17 countries in 2010.
In 2019, 2 countries were certified malaria-free: Algeria and Argentina. Globally, a total of 38 countries and territories have achieved this milestone. India, a country that carries 3% of the global malaria burden, registered 2.6 million fewer cases in 2018 over the previous year. Uganda, which carries 5% of the burden, reported 1.5 million fewer cases in 2018 compared to 2017.
A number of new tools and technologies for malaria vector control have been submitted to WHO for evaluation including new types of insecticide-treated nets, spatial mosquito repellents, vector traps, gene-drive approaches and sugar baits designed to attract and kill Anopheles mosquitoes. In 2019, 3 countries — Ghana, Kenya and Malawi — introduced the RTS,S malaria vaccine in selected areas through a WHO-coordinated pilot programme. The vaccine has been shown through rigorous clinical trials to reduce four in 10 malaria cases in young children.
The rapid emergence and spread of COVID-19 across the world has created massive global disruptions that are impacting people’s lives and well-being. While we are tackling COVID-19, it is essential that other killer diseases, such as malaria, are not ignored. In 2018, there were an estimated 228 million cases of malaria in 89 countries. That extrapolates to 65.7 million cases in a 15-week period. The number of COVID-19 cases in the same period is 2.2 million — less than 3.3% of the annual number of malaria cases.
Ending malaria is still possible ― but it will require intensified efforts from everyone in the global community. Campaigns that engage communities and country leaders — like “Zero malaria starts with me” — can foster an environment of accountability and action.