The World Health Organization’s (WHO) World Malaria Report 2020 highlighted impressive gains in malaria reduction over the past twenty years, including the prevention of an estimated 1.5 billion malaria cases and 7.6 million malaria deaths between 2000–2019.
However, Erada founder, Dr. Benji Pretorius, says efforts to combat malaria must be accelerated if we wish to see eradication of the disease within our lifetimes.
The WHO’s latest World Malaria Report provided great relief and hope to many. There is no doubt that, globally, we have come a long way in the fight against malaria over the past twenty years. Many countries have severely reduced the threat of malaria, with both Belize and Cabo Verde having reported zero indigenous cases in 2019, the first time since the year 2000. Additionally, both China and El Salvador have made a formal request for certification, after a third consecutive year with zero indigenous malaria cases.
Within the last five years, seven countries have achieved a WHO certification of malaria-free status. The long road to worldwide eradication of malaria is shortening, step by step.
Yet, 409,000 people still died from malaria in 2019, a preventable and treatable disease. Even as we celebrate incredible gains over the past twenty years and the millions of lives saved, the realities and immense scale of the scourge of malaria cannot be ignored. The global malaria death toll was estimated at 736,000 in the year 2000; the reality we must face now is that twenty years of efforts worldwide to fight the disease hasn’t even reduced the death toll by half.
This is not to sound pessimistic over what has already been achieved; it is important for the scale of the malaria burden, and its consequences, to be recognised globally if governments and world leaders are to understand that more action is needed quickly.
After the global COVID-19 pandemic, many more people across the world will understand the reality of living in fear of a largely preventable illness, fearing for friends and loved ones, and the inescapable awful reality that avoiding a potentially deadly illness often comes down to having some form of privileged status, job security, a decent income and, sometimes, simply luck. If the terrible COVID-19 virus has produced any positives, it would be that many more people will now understand the extreme importance of tackling diseases like malaria.
What can we learn from COVID-19 to help to eradicate malaria?
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the need to invest in and expand healthcare systems across the world. The WHO African region, which bore 94% of the malaria case burden in 2019 (estimated 215 million cases), also has extremely fragile health systems which operate at near capacity outside of a pandemic.
Accurate and timely rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs) for malaria that are simple to use and could be administered by the patient in their own home could help to ease the burden on strained health systems.
Our SALVA! RDT, which only requires children or adults to spit into a tube, delivers an accurate result in five to twenty minutes and could be administered by parents, teachers or community leaders in homes or schools, taking the burden off medically trained professionals and allowing them to focus on treatment for malaria and COVID-19. There is no need to send samples back to a lab for testing and, for people who live in rural areas, a rapid diagnostic test like SALVA! could lessen reliance on health worker visits or having to travel a long distance to a clinic. In diagnosing and treating malaria, time is of the essence to give people the best chance of making a full recovery.
According to the latest World Malaria Report, 2.7 billion RDTs for malaria were sold by manufacturers during the period of 2010–2019, with an estimated proportion of 80% of these sold to sub-Saharan African countries. Additionally, 1.9 billion RDTs were distributed by national malaria programmes during this time, with 84% in sub-Saharan Africa.
This is remarkable progress, but distribution of RDTs is only part of the solution to combatting malaria. Greater access to diagnostic tools must be combined with strengthened and fairer healthcare models. The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the danger of discriminatory healthcare models, where access to quality healthcare and life-saving medicines is more of a ‘privilege’ than a human right. It’s hard to imagine an end to the pervasiveness of preventable diseases in the world’s poorest communities when paying for medicine to treat malaria (less than $10 USD) still pushes struggling families into debt. Tackling diseases like malaria, which disproportionally affects the world’s poorest areas, relies on improving access to affordable quality healthcare, as much as the distribution and availability of RDTs. Receiving treatment for an often deadly disease like malaria should not be determined by available income.
The fight against malaria is also a fight against poverty. The possibility of eradicating malaria within our lifetimes depends upon accelerated and focused efforts to tackle both the disease and the level of poverty in the world’s poorest communities.
The world has changed greatly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Efforts to combat the novel virus have proven that it is possible for governments and world leaders to come together to prevent loss of life on a grand scale. We now have the choice, in rebuilding the new world, of what kind of world we wish to create.
It will be challenging, but possible, to create a world where the most vulnerable no longer die from preventable and treatable diseases, and where everyone has access to quality healthcare regardless of income. However, it won’t happen, unless the world now comes together to demand more action to tackle malaria, with the same amount of focus, effort and investment that has been provided to tackle COVID-19.
The full WHO World Malaria Report 2020 is available at: https://www.who.int/malaria/publications/world_malaria_report/en/