For the first time in a decade, global cases of malaria are on the rise, prompting concerns over a potential resurgence of the deadly disease.
Experts gathering at the Malaria World Summit in London are urging world leaders to dedicate more efforts and resources to combat the parasite, which is responsible for nearly half-a-million deaths – mostly young children and infants – each year. Donors announced a $3.8 billion investment, including $1 billion from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to fund development and research efforts, part of which will be allocated to understanding how mosquitoes continue to adapt to insecticides and anti-malarial drugs.
One focus this research could take is in gene-editing technologies (like CRISPR) that allow scientists to find, modify, and even replace malarial genes in mosquitoes, Gates said.
"If we stand still, the insecticides we use stop working, the drugs stop working because the parasite itself evolves around that, so this is a game where you are either falling behind or getting ahead," Gates told BBC Radio 4 ahead of the summit. Over the next five years, renewed action and boosted funding could prevent 350 million cases and save 650,000 lives, cutting the total number of cases in half by 2023, health experts said.
The funds will be used to match 100 million pounds pledged by the British government earlier this week to support “priority countries with mosquito nets, indoor sprays, and the strengthening of health systems.”
Despite a 60 percent drop in malaria mortality cases globally since 2000, a report by the World Health Organization found that between 2015 and 2016 cases increased by 5 million in Asia, Africa, and South America, totaling 216 million cases. Experts attributed this increase, in part, to flat funding levels for anti-malarial programs.
“The world has made incredible progress in the fight against malaria – but we can’t stop now,” said Gates in a Tweet.
There is no readily available vaccine, but a pilot program for a new experimental vaccine called Mosquirix launched earlier this year to treat young children in three parts of Africa, which is home to 90 percent of malaria cases and 91 percent of malarial deaths.
If recognized and treated properly, malaria is a curable disease. In extreme cases, the mosquito-borne infectious disease can cause organ failure, as well as abnormalities in blood and metabolism.