Today, the 25th of April, is World Malaria Day, the purpose of which is to make people aware that the disease is both preventable and treatable, and to recognize the global efforts to control malaria.
Malaria is one of the oldest and most frequently occurring infectious diseases in humans. It is also the deadliest, responsible for about 655,000 deaths every year. That's if you go by the WHO's figures. According to research using new data and new computer modelling and published in the British medical journal the Lancet, 1.24 million people died from mosquito-borne disease in 2010.
The good news is that whichever figure you choose to go by, increased prevention and control measures appear to be paying off as global death rates are now falling. Going by the new research's figures, worldwide deaths rose from 995,000 in 1980 to a peak of 1.82 million in 2004, before falling to 1.24 million in 2010. In Africa, malaria deaths have been cut by 33% within the last decade; outside of Africa, 35 out of the 53 countries, affected by malaria, have reduced cases by 50% in the same time period.
The bad news is that 655,000 - 1.24 million deaths is still a lot of deaths for a disease that can be prevented and controlled by taking some basic precautions, such as using long-lasting insecticide-impregnated mosquito nets, and using them consistently, indoor spraying with effective insecticide, knowing what infection symptoms to look out for, and getting rapid treatment (taking effective anti-malarial medicine) if infected, especially so if you are young, old or pregnant. You need to be able to afford such nets, sprays and medicine, of course, which is why there's a high correlation between malarial deaths and poverty. And the highest concentration of poverty coincides with the hot and humid parts of the world in which the mosquito that carries the malaria parasite happens to thrive: sub-Saharan Africa, South America and parts of Asia.
Which is why the goal of near-zero deaths by 2015 is being aimed for within the context of the Millennium Development Goals, especially those relating to improving child survival and maternal health, eradicating extreme poverty and expanding access to education.
Although the precautions individuals can take to minimise the risk of infection are simple, the efforts to ensure everyone is in a position to take those precautions is a hard bureaucratic slog. It's involves fund-raising and the targeted allocation of funds (for instance, the UN is currently appealing for $3.2 billion in order to try to reach its goal of "near-zero" deaths by 2015, but Nigeria, with the highest number of malaria cases, would alone need one-third of that amount to continue its malaria initiatives), country by country strategy to balance the involvement of development agencies, community groups, and governments, public education campaigns, careful planning regarding the best methods of indoor residual spraying, plus making sure the research necessary for the development of new resistant medicine and insecticide continues.
A lab technician analysing a blood sample to check for malaria, at the Ola During Hospital, Freetown, Sierra Leone.
The public, for its part, needs accurate information about those precautions, and easy access to the nets, the most effective sprays and treatment when infected. Which is why our hearts sank when we saw this Nigerian ad for insecticide brand Mortein masquerading as the voice of authority on malaria-prevention. Especially as the message here is confused.
Say no to malaria? Women against malaria? If we stand prepared to defend our freedom? We can do it, we're a team / together we're Mortein? This isn't a problem that requires solidarity, like resisting the divisive propaganda of religious extremists. It's a problem of public education and accessibility, the responsibility of the government, not private companies with an eye on their next profit statement. It's clever marketing for the company responsible to position its brand in this manner, but why the Nigerian government is allowing one brand to "own" the category is a mystery. And the Nigerian government's National Malaria Control Programme's website doesn't provide much reassurance, not when it's goal in 2012 still reads "To halve the burden of malaria by the year 2010 …"
If you want to know more about what is being done to eradicate malaria, visit the World Malaria Day website, the global malaria action plan site for a malaria-free world, Roll back malaria, WHO and The Malaria Atlas Project.