Every year nearly half a million people die from malaria. Ninety percent of those deaths occur in Africa, and most victims are children younger than five and pregnant women. For every year we fail to move the needle on ending this mosquito-borne disease, we lose lives and money through development funds that could be spent on other health issues. Children miss school, people can’t work, and communities suffer.
The good news is global mortality rates from malaria have been cut in half from 2000 to 2015 – from 840,000 to 438,000. Many nations have even managed to eliminate the disease. The bad news is eradication efforts have stalled since 2015. Some countries have made progress, but others have seen little change, while some have even seen malaria cases increase.
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) April 25, 2018
To restart the progress for global malaria elimination, the United States should increase funding for innovation and research.
Medical advances are promising. Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi are currently testing a new vaccine, but it is only 40 percent effective and requires three doses plus a booster shot. However, more effective vaccines and gene editing technology are just over the horizon.
Improvements to existing tools like mosquito nets, insecticides, and anti-malarial medications can also help elimination efforts. Even social science breakthroughs in behavior change communications can make a difference. There are many pathways to malaria eradication, and they all require additional research funding.
Unfortunately, the United States is reducing its spending on malaria eradication. We can reach the World Health Organization’s goal of reducing malaria cases and mortality rates
by at least 90 percent in 2030 only by increasing efforts to research the next generation of anti-malarial tools.
Ending malaria would save hundreds of thousands of lives every year. The benefit of saving lives at that number is self-evident.
Ending malaria would improve multiple indicators of well-being. A community that wipes out the disease is more likely to have other better health outcomes. Eliminating the disease has positive economic effects on communities, allows for infrastructure development, improves wealth, and improves productivity. Afflicted countries would recoup $12 billion in losses caused by malaria annually.
Ending malaria would also positively impact other development projects. Money allocated for malaria eradication projects could be used to address food security, neglected tropical diseases, promote economic development, or fund infrastructure projects.
Some may see the call for research funding with skepticism. It may be viewed as an unrealistic hope for a new product that may never materialize. Skeptics would be right to point out that malaria can be eliminated with current tools. However, there are reasons why existing tools are not making forward progress on the ground.
It is getting harder for health promoters to have remaining people to start using mosquito nets, remove mosquito breeding sites, and seek care early. To overcome these challenges, we need to spend much more on existing programs.
Others may point to individual micro-level cases to demonstrate success. As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, I have seen many examples of communities making substantial improvements. For example, in the Senegalese village where I served, there was confusion about what malaria is. In the local language, malaria is referred to as sibaru. This translates best as “body aches often with fever.” The first person to say they had sibaru was a farmer who had worked in the hot sun all day while fasting for Ramadan. The man’s headache originated from dehydration, not from the malaria parasite. Working with schools, women’s groups, and village leaders, my partners and I explained the translation issues to clarify why proper testing, treatment, and prevention are essential.
AFP map showing the incidence of malaria around the world.
— AFP news agency (@AFP) April 24, 2019
With enough attention to specific communities, you can conduct successful needs assessment programs, determine barriers to healthy behaviors, and implement successful projects. These success stories do exist. However, focused attention on unique issues is not always possible, and macro-level strategy is currently stuck in the mud.
In human history, malaria has caused incalculable death, but we have made significant progress in stopping this disease. Because progress is stalling, now is the time to breathe new life into innovation and research to eradicate malaria. America’s investment in a new generation of tools to wipe out malaria will benefit all of humanity.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.