Progress at risk despite millions of lives saved from malaria, warns WHO

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Vestergaard Frandsen

Some 3.3 million lives were saved since 2000 from malaria, says a new WHO report.

Deaths worldwide fell by 45% and were more than halved for African children under five years old.

However, a lack of funds and recent problems with bednet makers means the progress made over the last decade is as risk.

“This remarkable progress is no cause for complacency: absolute numbers of malaria cases and deaths are not going down as fast as they could,” says Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General. “The fact that so many people are infected and dying from mosquito bites is one of the greatest tragedies of the 21st century.”

Cases of malaria fell by 29% worldwide over the period, but an estimated 3.4 billion people remain at risk for malaria. The problem is concentrated. According to the WHO, 80% of global malaria cases occur in southeast Asia and in Africa.

The number of bed nets distributed has declined over the past three years from 145 million in 2010 to 70 million in 2012. That falls short of the 150 million needed each year to ensure every person at risk is protected, says the WHO.

“To win the fight against malaria we must get the means to prevent and treat the disease to every family who needs it,” says Raymond G Chambers, the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Financing the Health MDGs and for Malaria. “Our collective efforts are not only ending the needless suffering of millions, but are helping families thrive and adding billions of dollars to economies that nations can use in other ways.”

Less than half of all people living in sub-Saharan Africa have access to insecticide-treated bednets.

Money is the problem. Funding has increased dramatically from $100 million in 2000, but it is not enough. An estimated $5.1 billion is needed to propel anti-malaria work says the WHO. Current spending comes in at $2.5 billion a year, nearly half of what is needed.

“The remarkable gains against malaria are still fragile,” says Dr Robert Newman, Director of the WHO Global Malaria Programme. “In the next 10-15 years, the world will need innovative tools and technologies, as well as new strategic approaches to sustain and accelerate progress.”

A recent replenishment meeting for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria saw the organization raised $12 billion for the next three years. While the figure exceeds that of the previous replenishment by nearly $3 billion, it did not meet the goal of $15 billion. The lower commitments are the result of stagnating aid and global health spending by major donor countries.

Last month, the Global Fund announced it suspended contracts with its two largest bednet producers over allegations of  “serious financial wrongdoing” in Cambodia. That may hamper its efforts to work with UNICEF, the UK’s DfID, and the US President’s Malaria Initiative to distribute more than 200 bednets over the next 18 months.

Further complicating the problem is the unreliability of data about malaria cases and deaths. Information from countries representing only 14% of global malaria cases is reliable. The rest is based on varying levels of estimates that take in medical records, population numbers, medicines sold and other available data. Knowing exact numbers is difficult, but the WHO is confident that the overall trend is going in the right direction.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.