Johannesburg — Twenty-one countries have experienced three consecutive years of zero indigenous cases of malaria since 2000. Ten countries where malaria once raged have been certified free of malaria by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
This is according to the latest World Malaria Report. which looks back at key events and milestones that have shaped the global response to the killer disease over the last two decades. Several veterans of the fight against malaria presented the report at an online briefing, prior to its release today.
Dr. Pedro Alonso, Director of the WHO Global Malaria Programme, describes the new report a 'special edition' of the publication. "It gives a detailed analysis on progress towards the milestones [on the path to eliminating malaria], and also includes a dedicated chapter on malaria and the COVID-19 pandemic", Alonso says.
Sustained effort averted seven million malaria deaths in Africa.
The "extraordinary achievement of 1.2 million cases of malaria and seven million deaths averted in the WHO Africa region really is something to be pleased about," says Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, Director of the WHO Regional Office for Africa. "As the world grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic, the gains we have made for many years over poverty and disease, risk being reversed."
Already, Moeti says, "Malaria causes a 1.3 percent loss in Africa's economic growth every year, and we know that the Covid-19 pandemic is projected to push sub-Saharan Africa into recession for the first time in 25 years. This incredibly challenging situation requires a new commitment to sustain and accelerate the gains that have been made against malaria, a disease which continues to kill many more African people than diseases like Covid-19 and even Ebola,"
Despite Covid-19 causing havoc in many countries, over 90 percent of life-saving malaria prevention campaigns scheduled for 2020 went ahead, helping avert a doubling of malaria deaths in sub-Saharan Africa in 2020 alone.
It has been 20 years since the Abuja Declaration that was signed by African heads of states, who pledged to reduce malaria deaths on the continent by half over a 10-year period. Since then there has been progress, but the report insists that more can be done. In 2019 there were 229 million malaria cases that were reported globally. An estimated 409 000 people died from the disease in 2019, compared to 411 000 in 2018, so the pace of improvement has plateaued. Last year, 94 percent of global malaria deaths occurred in the WHO African Region.
Insufficient funding has been one of the challenges most countries face, especially low-income countries. To make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic emerged as a serious additional challenge to malaria responses worldwide, the report found.
Another finding is that one in three pregnant women - 11 million women across 33 African countries - contracted malaria, resulting in 822 thousand children born with low birth weight. Underweight babies risk becoming undernourished and 'stunted' - never able to reach their full intellectual or physical potential.
"This report is a wake up call, it tells us that we are likely not going to reach the 2030 targets of the global strategy for malaria, if we continue on the current trajectory. To turn this situation around, there are two key challenges that need to be addressed. The first one is the persistently weak systems in malaria endemic countries and insufficient funding," Moeti says.
"Total global spending on malaria that is illustrated in this report is U.S.$3 billion - for a disease that infects over 200 million people and kills over 400 thousand people, U.S.$3 billion is a shockingly small amount of money", says Peter Sands, Executive Director of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, based in Geneva. "We know that when we concentrate resources and spend more money, we can get rid of this disease,"
Hundreds of thousands of children dying of a preventable, treatable disease is unacceptable.
The Global Technical Strategy for Malaria 2016–2030 was adopted by the World Health Assembly - the meeting of all WHO member states - in 2015. It provides a comprehensive framework to guide countries in their efforts to accelerate progress towards malaria elimination and sets the target of reducing global malaria incidence and mortality rates by at least 90 percent by 2030.
"Considering that malaria is one of the oldest diseases, it is unacceptable that hundreds of thousands of children, especially vulnerable children under the age of five, continue to die each year of this preventable and treatable disease". says Dr. Abdourahmane Diallo, CEO of the RBM [Roll Back Malaria] Partnership. Although every malaria death is avoidable, Diallo says, malaria deaths often rise during health crises.
"Therefore," he says, "it is fundamental to tackle malaria and Covid-19 together to save more lives and sustain the investment in the malaria fight. We cannot let the Covid-19 pandemic detract us from protecting the hard-fought gains and accelerating efforts to end this disease within this generation."
For accelerated progress, the report recommends that those in power should step up political leadership, strengthen malaria surveillance, ensure equity in access to quality health services, and embrace innovation.