Today, the 25th of April, is World Malaria Day. It also happens to be the first ever World Immunization Week this week. Together, both events serve to raise awareness of major global health issues. But this year, more than any other, both events are calling for action to sustain the momentum of progress that has already been made. The theme for this year’s World Malaria Day is “Sustain Gains, Save Lives” – a clear call to strengthen financial and political commitment in times of increasing economic austerity and calls to slash aid budgets.
The success of global efforts to vaccinate children against polio over the course of two decades has surpassed expectation, to the point where this debilitating disease is now on the verge of complete eradication. In today’s blog we will be asking: ‘how do we replicate the successes seen against polio and smallpox – the only human disease to ever be fully eradicated - with malaria?’ One answer lies in continued funding of vital treatment strategies, as well greater support for research and development.
In the last decade, malaria deaths across Africa have been cut by a third. In other countries where access to malaria control techniques has improved, malaria deaths have fallen by more than 20%. Through the work of the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria, these malaria control strategies, such as distribution of mosquito nets and insect repellent, have made significant gains possible. The Global Fund is the largest international financing organization working towards the prevention and treatment of malaria. Since it was founded in 2002, it is thought to have saved an incredible 8 million lives. However, the organization has been hit by a funding crisis, which threatens to jeopardize the investment needed to bring an end to malaria.
In seeing mortality rates for malaria decline, public pressure to further reduce the impact of the disease has declined and resulted in complacency and neglect. However, we know that, now more than ever, sustained funding and public backing is required. In recent years, drug resistant forms of malaria have been emerging, posing a real threat to the fight against this disease. Drug resistance is almost unavoidable when treating diseases like this, but it emphasises the real need, not only for continuing support of the work of the Global Fund, but also for constant research and development to overcome resistant strains of the parasite.
The research that has been directed towards malaria means that for the first time we are close to developing a life-saving vaccine to protect against the disease. This could enable us to eliminate malaria from many of the worst-affected countries and contain it further in others. The vaccine is currently in Phase III clinical trials, which means it is in the last stages of development and is close to being fully approved. It is thought that a vaccine may only be three years away from final approval. As demonstrated by the reduction in polio cases, immunization has proven to be the most successful and cost-effective preventative health strategy. According to the World Health Organization, vaccination programs alone avert 2 – 3 million deaths annually. However, advances like those needed to develop a malaria vaccine and overcome drug resistance can only be achieved with sufficient, long-term funding of medical research.
Through combining improved malaria control strategies, effective preventive treatment medicines and potential vaccines, the world may be on the path toward eventual malaria eradication. For this to be realised, however, key donor countries - such as the US, UK and Australia – need to continue their support of the life-saving work of the Global Fund, while also increasing their investment in medical research . We can’t run the risk of becoming complacent. We mustn’t stop at smallpox and polio - we need to ensure that malaria meets the same fate – confined to the pages of history books, not claiming the lives of thousands across the world each year.