We can end malaria in our lifetimes, but we need the right political will, scientific innovation and well-funded programming to get there, argues Dr Astrid Bonfield from Malaria No More.
Today is World Malaria Day. It’s an opportunity for the world to come together to raise awareness of the need for urgent action on malaria, and to step up the fight against this disease.
Why malaria? We can end this disease in our lifetimes
Malaria is treatable and preventable, and yet in 2021, 247 million people had malaria and 619,000 people died from it globally. Malaria keeps children out of school and adults out of work, contributing to the cycle of poverty. It puts unnecessary pressure on fragile health systems and arrests economic growth, stealing the prosperity of communities, countries and continents.
But this is a fight that we can win. And we can end malaria in our lifetimes.
Since 2000, the global death rate from malaria has been cut in half, and an estimated 2 billion malaria cases and 11.7 million deaths were averted between 2000 and 2021.
We have effective tools to fight malaria, from vaccines to next-generation insecticide-treated nets. And we have the capacity to create the new interventions that could end malaria for good.
However, we still face challenges. Increased drug and insecticide resistance mean that the tools we have are less effective than they once were. The climate crisis poses severe risks: the potential for disruptions in malaria programming and the potential to see spikes in cases as a result of severe weather events mean we need to act now. But health programming was badly disrupted during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a widening global funding gap means the financing is not in place to get back on track with our goals on malaria.
Ending preventable deaths of mothers, new-born babies and children
In 2019, the Conservative manifesto committed to end the preventable deaths of mothers, new-born babies and children by 2030, and lead the way in eradicating Ebola and malaria.
This commitment was right to highlight malaria as a leading cause of deaths among young children with 75% of malaria deaths in children under the age of five. One in three pregnant women in sub-Saharan Africa suffers from malaria, and this poses substantial risks to both mothers and children. Pregnancy-related malaria causes around 200,000 infant deaths every year and is responsible for 20% of stillbirths and 11% of all new-born deaths across the World Health Organization’s Africa region.
Women and girls are often expected to care for family members when they get ill, often resulting in missed school days for girls. This has a huge impact on their day-to-day lives and on their future prospects and ambitions.
For the government to deliver on the ending preventable deaths agenda and the new international women and girls strategy, tackling malaria will be vital.
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Developing the tools to end malaria
The UK is a thriving hub for life sciences and a world leader in researching and developing new tools to tackle malaria. One example of this is the brilliant work of Product Development Partnerships, which bring together the best of industry, academia, the not-for-profit and public health sectors to create ground-breaking solutions for tackling and treating diseases.
In the UK, Product Development Partnerships have created next-generation insecticide-treated nets, sugar-bait mosquito traps and a new malaria medicine which tackles recurring malaria in a single dose. The New Nets Project alone has provided protection to more than 60 million people so far, and medicines developed by the FCDO-backed Medicines for Malaria Venture protect 50 million children every year. That’s why the role British-backed science can play in ending malaria is being celebrated this year by Malaria No More UK and scientific partners from across the UK.
Delivering Zero Malaria
With an engaged champion for global health at the cabinet in the form of Andrew Mitchell MP, we know that the importance of tackling malaria isn’t being overlooked. Additionally, the UK’s pledge of £1bn to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria in November 2022 represented – while lower than hoped – a significant sum at a time of domestic and international economic difficulty. It is crucial the government continues to invest, as taking our foot off the pedal now could result in losing the progress of the past decade.
The UK’s position as a leader in life sciences did not happen by accident. It has been achieved through years of government investment, and it’s imperative that we continue to invest in researching and developing new tools to tackle infectious diseases. This means the UK is at the forefront of saving lives all over the world – and that’s good for Britain, too, as healthier populations everywhere make everyone safer. Malaria programmes were able to identify fevers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and were an important element of the global health security response. Investment in malaria programming is an investment in identifying, treating and preventing infectious disease – including the next pandemic – wherever it arises.
But it’s not enough to simply develop these tools. They must also reach the communities that need them the most. Through ambitious pledges to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the Global Fund in 2025, the UK can lead the way in ensuring that global health programming is fully funded.
A child still dies every minute from malaria. This is the moment for decision-makers from across the globe to say together that we can, and will, deliver zero malaria. And this is a fight in which it’s never been more important that the UK plays its part.