The overall rate of malaria infections in Africa has dropped by 50% over the past 15 years, according to a new study. This equates to the prevention of nearly 700 million cases of the disease, attributable to concerted efforts from governments and charities. Published in Nature, the research is the first to combine the data from over 30,000 sites to give a coherent, continent-wide picture of the fight against malaria.
The researchers calculated that the vast majority of this drop is due a simple solution: mosquito nets. The distribution of insecticide-treated nets, of which more than a billion have been handed out across the continent, accounts for 68% of the reduction in cases seen. In addition to that, a further 22% of the reduction is due to the drug artemisinin, while the final 10% is down to indoor residual spraying.
“Despite the large sums invested in malaria control, our understanding of the impact on the ground has been patchy,” explains Dr Pete Gething, who leads the Malaria Atlas Project team in Oxford, which carried out the research. “We've been able to provide here reliable and compelling evidence of just how big the impact has been and proof that malaria control is one of the smartest ways to spend aid.”
But the researchers warn that governments and charities must not become complacent. With 300,000 children still dying from the disease every year in Africa, the job in eradicating malaria is far from over. In addition to this, drug resistance in the malaria parasite and insecticide resistance of mosquitoes is a very real worry, especially considering that resistance to artemisinin has already been detected in Southeast Asia. “What's needed now is a redoubling of efforts to get the job done,” added Dr Gething.
In a separate report also released this week, the World Health Organization and UNICEF have announced that global deaths due to malaria have decreased by an impressive 60% since 2000. This translates into more than 6 million lives saved, many of which are children. It also documents how 13 countries that had previously reported cases of malaria in 2000 had zero cases in 2014.
Again, they highlight how the distribution of nets has been instrumental in the fight against the disease. In the last 15 years, the proportion of under-fives sleeping beneath a mosquito net has grown from just 2% to an estimated 68%. But the fight is not over. Children are disproportionately affected by malaria, and those in Sub-Saharan Africa even more so.
“Malaria kills mostly young children, especially those living in the poorest and most remote places,” Anthony Lake, Executive Director at UNICEF, said in a statement. “So the best way to celebrate global progress in the fight against it is to recommit ourselves to reaching and treating them. We know how to prevent and treat malaria. Since we can do it, we must.”