The world has made remarkable progress against malaria in the past 10 to 15 years. Deaths have been cut by half. More people are getting treated. And research on an effective vaccine continues.
Yet more needs to be done.Eighty percent of malaria cases and 78 percent of deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Health Organization. Most of those who die are young children.
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told VOA that in some African hospitals, 60 percent of the patients suffer from malaria.
During the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, Frieden made three visits to the region, where malaria is pervasive and can be contracted year-round. At one hospital he visited, he said, "I walked with a father who was carrying his 4-year-old son, who was dying from malaria. So it’s still a deadly problem in Africa. We need to persist in our activities, expand them and also figure out new ways to stop this terrible disease."
Frieden said there are ways to prevent and treat malaria. He said more children should sleep under bed nets, which keep mosquitoes from biting them. He would like to see both children and adults receive better medical treatment. In addition, he said, new treatments must be developed as traditional ones lose their effectiveness.
"We’re seeing real problems with drug resistance," he explained. "Use of the pills that have combinations of what are called ACTs, or artemisinin combination treatments, in place should reduce the likelihood that the drugs that people take cause resistance in the malaria parasite, but we’re seeing pesticide resistance to some of the pesticides in the bed nets."
In West Africa, until very recently, most medical resources went to fight Ebola, and malaria patients went untreated. Mateusz Plucinski, an epidemiologist with CDC's global health division, told VOA, ”Whenever you have more malaria cases going untreated, first of all, one result is that you have more malaria deaths."
Plucinski and other researchers did a study at the request of the Guinean government to learn what effect the Ebola epidemic had on malaria control. They found that some 74,000 people stopped receiving anti-malarial medicine and that people largely stopped going to health facilities when they had a fever, especially in areas with the greatest number of Ebola cases.
The researchers concluded that many more people died of malaria than the number of people who died of Ebola during the worst part of the epidemic. And, although Sierra Leone and Liberia were not included in the study, Plucinski said he expected the same to be true in those countries. The study was published in the September issue of The Lancet Infectious Diseases.
Although funding increases have led to unprecedented malaria treatment and prevention efforts in sub-Saharan Africa, much more still needs to be done. Frieden summed it up this way: "We have to continue to find breakthroughs on malaria. We have to look for a vaccine or for a way to control mosquitoes more effectively, because malaria remains a horrible challenge."
Experts say malaria can be prevented and controlled. The challenge is to do it.