WHO: Malaria deaths are not going down fast enough

A health worker installs a bed net for a rural family. Photo credit: ONE 

Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) released its 2013 World Malaria Report, which tracks trends in the global fight against malaria. The organization’s Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan summed up its findings with, “This remarkable progress [on malaria] is no cause for complacency: absolute numbers of malaria cases and deaths are not going down as fast as they could.”

It’s an apt quote. The world has made critical progress, including the attainment of a key milestone: halving the rate of child deaths due to malaria in just over a decade. An estimated 3.3 million malaria deaths have been averted through collective action, and promisingly, signs point to accelerated progress in the coming year. These are very positive developments that should be celebrated. However, as Director-General Chan points out, there is much work left to do.

Worryingly, global progress in reducing malaria cases and deaths has been falling short. We’ve seen a drop in cases and deaths by just 29 percent and 45 percent, respectively, between 2000 and 2012. These rates are both lower than they would have been with focused, adequate efforts. Worse, most of the progress was made in the early 2000s, with rates tapering off in recent years.

Indoor Risidual Spraying (IRS), the application of a residual insecticide to the inner walls of structures where people sleep, has played a significant part in reducing the cases of Malaria in Zanzibar, TanzaniaA worker applies of a residual insecticide to the inner walls of structures where people sleep to help prevent malaria. 

The big reason for this disappointing progress is flat and inadequate funding. Globally, just $2.5 billion was actually spent on malaria control last year – less than half of what was needed, and leaving a funding gap of $2.6 billion. This, unsurprisingly, has led to a shortage in interventions. Less than half of households needing a malaria bednet have access to one, and fewer malaria nets were distributed in 2012 than in 2011. Although there was an improvement in 2013, actual coverage rates remained flat due to population growth. Millions still do not have access to other key interventions such as an indoor residual spraying (IRS), diagnostic testing, and proper malaria treatment.

Current estimates do project improved success in controlling malaria in 2013 and 2014. However, long-term funding projections are not as positive. Total funding for malaria control is estimated to reach approximately $2.85 billion between 2014 and 2016, which is still substantially below the amount required to achieve universal access to malaria interventions. Although an improvement from previous years, much of this increase is due to the recent replenishment of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, and not to donors increasing support for malaria specifically.

Long-term success in the fight against the disease necessitates increased focus and support. Although malaria is both a preventable and treatable disease, it continues to cost the world dearly, both monetarily and in human lives. But this killer disease can be overcome – and the fact that inaction directly leads to added costs in both money and human lives should inject extra urgency into global efforts to fight malaria.