WHO: Malaria control has improved for world’s most vulnerable

A mother and child recover from malaria in a hospital in Burundi. (United Nations Development Programme/Flickr)

The populations most vulnerable to malaria – pregnant women and children in sub-Saharan Africa – have seen markedly greater access to effective malaria control in recent years, according to a new report.

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) World Malaria Report 2016, released today, found a promising increase in sub-Saharan African children given the proper diagnostic test for the mosquito-borne disease. Last year, just more than half of children with a fever seeking care at a public health facility in the region received a diagnostic test for malaria, compared to just 29 percent in 2010.

The 22 sub-Saharan countries included in the report have also shown a significant increase in the use of a preventive malaria treatment for pregnant women, which reduces the risk of maternal and infant mortality, anemia and the other adverse effects of malaria in pregnancy. Coverage for this treatment reached 31 percent in 2015, the report found, up from just 6 percent in 2010.

Such improvements are critical for sub-Saharan Africa, which was home to 90 percent of malaria cases and 92 percent of malaria deaths last year. The report also has good news for the rest of the world: between 2010 and 2015, malaria mortality rates fell by an estimated 29 percent globally and by 31 percent in the African region.

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Still, the authors warn not to let current progress mask the ongoing need for funding and comprehensive efforts to eradicate the deadly disease.

“We are definitely seeing progress,” said Pedro Alonso, director of the WHO global malaria program, in a statement. “But the world is still struggling to achieve the high levels of program coverage that are needed to beat this disease.”

There were 212 million new cases of malaria worldwide in 2015, the report found, and an estimated 43 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa was not protected by treated nets or indoor spraying with insecticides – the primary methods of preventing the disease.

Of particular concern is the mortality rate among children under five. Mortality in this population has fallen an estimated 35 percent over the last five years, but malaria still remains a major threat to children, claiming the life of one child every two minutes.

It is important to remember that progress is not always linear, according to the report’s lead author Richard Cibulskis, who said in a statement, “It is normal to see some fluctuations in trends as countries make progress towards elimination. Seeing some increases in malaria case incidence in a given year is part of the overall pattern of decline.”

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“It is when we see countries having multiple years in a row with increases that we start to be concerned,” he added.

WHO officials said that in some countries nearing eradication, malaria is especially prevalent among migrant and mobile populations living in remote areas. Responding quickly to new and imported cases poses an additional challenge. These countries must take advantage of efficient surveillance systems, the organization says, to help ensure that every malaria infection is detected, treated and reported to a national malaria registry.

Considering the drastic reductions in malaria transmission over the last decade, most disease control experts are optimistic that malaria can and will be eradicated. If funding goals are reached and eradication efforts are thorough in sub-Saharan Africa and other high-risk areas, Bill Gates thinks it can be done in just a generation.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com