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The disease is loosening its grip on the world, but there are still 400,000 deaths from malaria every year - mostly in Africa. DW spoke to WHO's Dr Pedro Alonso about why we need to keep the issue in the spotlight.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has set some ambitious goals to be reached by 2020 - including the reduction of malaria deaths by 40 percent and the elimination of the disease in at least 10 more countries.
Dr Pedro Alonso, director of the WHO's Global Malaria Program, tells DW how far the world has come in the fight against malaria, and why we should not get complacent.
DW: Why do we mark World Malaria Day?
Dr Pedro Alonso: Essentially, it's to remind us all, the world, that malaria remains a major killer. That it has a global spread, it is particularly virulent and damaging in sub-Saharan Africa, it still takes the lives of over 400,000 people every year - mostly African children - and that there is still in excess of 200 million malaria cases every year. It's a disease of poverty, which causes poverty. The world needs to continue paying key attention to this global health challenge.
What have the trends been since the Global Malaria Program was initiated?
The world is doing well. We are happy to document very significant improvements over the last 10-15 years in the fight against malaria. Mortality has reduced by nearly 70 percent globally. Disease rates have decreased by 40 percent globally. Some countries have eliminated malaria completely. So we are seeing massive improvements.
So, the last decade has indeed been a golden era in the fight against malaria - but a lot of work remains ahead of us. There is no place for complacency. It still is a major health problem and the fight needs to continue.
Are we looking at eliminating malaria any time soon?
We are looking at some countries eliminating malaria. At least 35 countries should have eliminated malaria by 2030 - hopefully more. We are looking at reductions of disease rates of 90 percent by 2030. So there is a clear plan - which was endorsed by the World Health Assembly in 2015 - of what needs to happen between now and 2020.
The long-term vision is a world free of malaria. That will still take a lot of time, a lot of political commitment, a lot of focus and a lot of ownership by the affected countries themselves.
What has been the greatest challenge in Africa?
The biggest challenge is being able to get the tools that we know work to all those that need them. Still 40 percent of people who should be protected either by insecticide-treated nets or indoor residual spraying in Africa are not accessing those interventions. Still more than half of all malaria cases go undiagnosed and untreated.
So, it's about having the health systems that can get the commodities to all those that need them; it's about the financial resources to ensure that happens; and it's about the political commitment. We've been making great progress on all those fronts, but we're still far from being where we need to be.
We know that malaria was eradicated in Europe many years ago, with the use of the DDT pesticide. Are there policy challenges in Africa?
It is true that parts of Europe and the US did manage to eliminate malaria in the 1960s and 1970s, and this is often held up as an example - well if they could do it, we can also do it in Africa. That is true, but we need to recognize the differences also. The efficiency of the mosquito vector that we have in Africa is much greater than that which was prevalent in both Europe and America, therefore it was a lot easier from a biological point of view to eliminate malaria in Europe or in the West, than it is in Africa.
There are specific elements that make malaria in Africa particularly hard and therefore overcoming it is not just a matter of political determination, not only a matter of financing - it's a matter also of health systems and of getting the right tools to those that need them.
Is there political good will in countries in Africa?
I think there is. The heads of state in Africa have made it clear, and ministers of health are clear, so I think we are very encouraged by the political commitment and leadership we see in the affected countries themselves. But the fight against malaria is going to be a long and hard one. We are building on success but a lot remains to be done.
What is your final message?
My message is: we are making great progress, but there is no place for complacency. Political commitment, closing the gap, ensuring that all those that need to access the tools we have do have them - this is going to be the key for the next five years.