~ Written by Randall Kramer, PhD, M.E. (Professor of Environmental Economics and Global Health, Duke University) & Leonard Mboera, PhD, MSc (Chief Scientist, Tanzania National Institute for Medical Research)
*Also published on the Duke Global Health Institute Website
On World Malaria Day, April 25, there’s much to celebrate and acknowledge when it comes to the fight against malaria. Over the past 15 years, we’ve seen a huge ramp-up of international funding, and the latest statistics show impressive progress—a 46% decrease in malaria infections among children in sub-Saharan Africa and an estimated 4.3 million deaths averted globally over time.
One of the most effective malaria control measures has been the free distribution of several hundred million insecticide-treated mosquito nets that protect people from mosquitoes while sleeping. In 2004, only 3% of at-risk people in sub-Saharan Africa had an insecticide-treated mosquito net available to them, compared to 49% in 2014 after an international campaign.
The U.S. government is among the major funders of malaria control, and it’s one of the few international assistance programs that has garnered bipartisan support through the Bush and Obama terms. But despite the upsurge in spending and the laudable success of these programs, malaria remains one of the leading causes of death in poorer and tropical parts of the world.
The need for continued support is critical; it’s estimated that eliminating malaria as a major global disease threat would require double the current $3 billion invested annually in malaria control. But in the face of so many other pressing needs, why should we continue to invest in malaria?
In the last year, nearly 200 million people suffered from malaria, and its death toll—more than 500,000—was 50 times greater than that of the widely publicized outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. And malaria takes a particularly devastating toll on the young. More than 80% of the deaths from malaria are in children under five, and those who manage to survive the illness often suffer lasting effects on development, school performance and lifetime earnings.
Because malaria is such a resilient killer, we can expect to see these malaria losses continue and potentially rise in the absence of continued financial support. In fact, with temperatures steadily increasing throughout the world as a result of global warming, malaria-transmitting mosquitoes have begun to take residence in new regions, raising the specter of malaria spreading far beyond its current boundaries.
In addition to the physical suffering malaria causes, the disease stunts national economic progress.
Studies by Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs suggest that, if not for malaria keeping children out of school and agricultural workers out of the fields, the rate of economic development in sub-Saharan Africa would have been much higher in the past few decades.
And lastly, we can’t underestimate the goodwill generated by our investments in mosquito nets and other malaria-defeating approaches in recipient countries. As one community member told our research team in rural Tanzania, “Mosquito nets have been a great help to us. The day when mosquito nets were distributed, people were very happy, because many people in our community could not afford to buy the mosquito nets.”
The malaria parasite, a resilient and opportunistic pest, has successfully co-inhabited with humans for thousands of years, and it continues to adapt and evolve, damaging populations and economies across the globe. We now have the knowledge, technology and health systems to significantly reduce its devastating human impacts. But putting these assets into action will require renewed political will and financial commitment from rich and poor countries around the globe—including the U.S.