WHO Reports Success in Malaria Efforts, Despite Less Funding

Worldwide, the malaria mortality rate decreased by 45% between 2000 and 2012.

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Global efforts in the fight against malaria have saved an estimated 3.3 million lives since 2000, according to the World Health Organization (WHO)’s latest malaria report.

This progress has been made despite the fact that funding to control the illness, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, is below the amount public health experts feel is adequate.

The 2013 World Malaria Report shows there were an estimated 207 million cases of malaria in 2012. Between 2000 and 2012, the global incidence rate fell by 29%, and by 31% in Africa, where most of the world’s cases occur.

In 2012, an estimated 627,000 people died of malaria, 90% of whom lived in sub-Saharan Africa.  Seventy-seven percent of the deaths occurred among children under five years old. That rate, however, was 49% lower than mortality from the disease in 2000 in Africa, and 54% lower among African children.

Part of what is driving incidence and deaths rates down is additional funding targeted toward increasing access to testing for the parasite responsible for the disease. The $2.5 billion committed to the cause overall in 2012, for example, far exceeded the $100 million designated in 2000, and much of those funds were dedicated to increasing access to diagnostic testing and treatments such as artemisinin-based therapies in 2012. Recent studies show that artemisinin-based combinations are the most effective against malaria.

Still, public health officials are concerned that the improvements in controlling the disease despite less than adequate funding may lead to complacency. “This remarkable progress is no cause for complacency: absolute numbers of malaria cases and deaths are not going down as fast as they could,” WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said in a statement. “The fact that so many people are infected and dying from mosquito bites is one of the greatest tragedies of the 21st century.”

Funding for malaria prevention and treatment programs remains below the $5.1 billion that the Global Malaria Action Plan, the global action plan for fighting the illness, estimated is needed to provide universal access to interventions such as diagnostic tests, bed nets, and medications. Millions still cannot take advantage of either the diagnostic tests that would identify their infection, or the treatments that could help them, WHO officials say. Portions of the 3.3 billion people at risk of developing the disease also don’t have insecticide-treated bed nets, one of the most effective ways of protecting against the mosquito bites that transmit the disease. The report shows only about 70 million nets were delivered to nations where malaria rates are high in 2012, although about 150 million are needed to keep infection rates at minimal levels. (That may be changing, however; in 2013, 136 million nets were distributed.)

Health officials are also concerned by the emergence of drug-resistant malaria parasites in four countries in 2012. Without the needed funding to provide more bed nets, diagnostic tests and treatments, not to mention support research into more effective insecticides, the small gains in managing the disease may be lost.

“We can’t rest on what we’re doing today. We need new tools out there if we want to continue to be successful,”  the Director of the WHO Global Malaria Programme, Dr. Robert Newman said at a press conference on Wednesday. “We need human capacity on the ground. We need health centers. We need innovation.”

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