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Science

WHO sees progress in fighting malaria - but a lot more needs to be done

The World Health Organization's annual World Malaria Report brings hope but with a warning. The disease remains an acute threat to public health , particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

There's a positive message in this year's World Malaria Report, and that is, it's possible to get rid of malaria, as some countries have shown. In 2015, 10 countries and territories reported fewer than 150 indigenous cases of malaria. A further nine countries reported between 150 and 1000 cases. So the World Health Organization believes it is entirely realistic to aim to eradicate the disease in at least 10 more countries by 2020.

Pedro Alonso, director of the WHO's Global Malaria Program, says the key ingredient to success is improving care for children and pregnant women. "This includes improved access to diagnosis, to guide treatment in public health facilities," he said in a briefing before the release of the report.

Doctors working in a laboratory at the Albert-Schweitzer hospital in Gabon (DW/G. Manco)

Early diagnostics, like here in Gabon, are crucial to find out, if symptoms are caused by malaria or by a virus.

And,indeed, the WHO can boast some success. Alonso lists some of the acchievements: "A 77-percent increase over the last five years. A five-fold increase in the percentage of women that receive three doses of preventative treatment during pregnancy against malaria and a very significant increase in the coverage of insecticide treated bed nets for populations at risk."

Over 200 million infections in 2015

"We still have in excess of 400,000 deaths every year due to malaria and in excess of 200 million cases worldwide. No time for content. We still have significant coverage gaps," Alonso stresses.

The WHO's malaria eradication strategy calls for a 40 percent reduction in malaria cases by the year 2020, compared to 2015. But many countries lack the capabilities for tackling malaria. The WHO report says less than half of the 91 countries and territories with malaria are on track to achieve this goal. 

"To close the coverage gaps, the world needs financial resources," the WHO's malaria expert stresses. "Here, the message is not that good. For the last five years, global funding for malaria has flat-lined. This is true both for international resources coming from donors as well as the domestic resources from the affected countries themselves."

 

Vaccine is no substitute for bed nets

The introduction of an anti-malaria vaccine could change things. The WHO says one potential vaccine, known as RTSS, will be rolled out next year through pilot projects in three countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

It works against the most deadly malaria parasite globally, and the most prevalent in Africa. But the vaccine is not perfect: It provides only partial protection. For now, the most efficient forms of protection - especially for children - remain bed-nets and the targeted use of insecticides.