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Malaria deaths halved since 2000 in quest for total eradication

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Despite successes, WHO warns against complacency

Infant surrounded by malaria bed net
Infant surrounded by malaria bed net
Flickr World Bank

The international health community is celebrating what may prove to be a turning point in the global fight against malaria. Deaths from the mosquito-borne disease have been almost halved since the turn of the millennium, according to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO), with experts saying they’re confident the illness can one day be eradicated entirely.

However, although the malaria mortality rate fell by 47 percent globally and by 54 percent in Africa, the WHO warns that much more still needs to be done. Dozens of countries are reporting insecticide-resistance among their mosquito populations and in Africa — where 90 percent of malaria deaths occur — some 278 million people lack even the basic protection of an insecticide-treated mosquito net.

Last year alone, 437,000 African children under the age of five died from malaria

The disease also continues to disproportionately affect children in poor countries. Of the estimated global malaria death toll of 584,000 in 2013, some 437,000 of those cases were African children under the age of five. However, malaria infections in the African continent have decreased significantly since the year 2000, falling by 23 percent from 173 million to 128 million.

Proportion of population sleeping under insecticide-treated nets
Proportion of population sleeping under insecticide-treated nets

The WHO attributes these gains to the increased spread of established methods, including rapid diagnostic tests (which have risen globally from 46 million 319 million over the past five years); malarial treatment using artemisnin (392 million treatments were bought last year, up from 11 million in 2004); and access to insecticide-treated nets (427 million of which have been distributed in the last two years).

The WHO warns that Ebola could set back the fight against the disease in West Africa

Dr. Margaret Chan, the director general of WHO, said that while these "tremendous achievements" were thanks to growing regional initiatives and "a major increase in international and domestic financing," the world could not afford to be complacent. "Most malaria-endemic countries are still far from achieving universal coverage with life-saving malaria interventions," said Chan. "Available funding is far less than what is required to protect everyone at risk."

Chan also warned that the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa was in danger of setting back the fight against malaria as health systems in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone face collapse under the new, unexpected pressure. "This Ebola outbreak is a global tragedy that is rewriting the history of public health," said Chan. "We should act with urgency and resolve, and remain focused on our shared goal: to create a world in which no one dies of malaria, a world entirely clear of this scourge."