African countries are making vital headway in preventing child malaria, thanks to wider distribution of insecticide-treated bednets and procurement of new drugs, a UN-backed report on Wednesday said.
The toll from malaria remains unchanged, with around 800,000 deaths occurring among African children aged under five each year, but these efforts are a springboard for forcing the disease into retreat, it said.
"These recent gains create, for the first time, a strong foundation from which countries can make rapid progress towards reducing the impact of malaria," the report said.
The report, issued by the UN Children's Fund (Unicef) and the Roll Back Malaria (RBM) Partnership, said that from 2004 to 2006, the annual production of insecticide-treated bednets had more than doubled from 30 million to 63 million.
Unicef more than tripled the number of nets it handed out in the two years to 2006, to 25 million, while the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria scaled up its own distribution from 1.35 million in 2004 to 18 million in 2006. Other donors have also seen big increases.
Of 20 sub-Saharan African countries monitored, 16 have at least tripled their bednet coverage since 2000, said the report, "Malaria & Children: Progress in Intervention Coverage."
Coverage in Gambia has reached around half of all children, while coverage in Sao Tome and Principe, Guinea-Bissau and Togo is now about 40 percent, it said.
Other countries are also doing well, although figures are sketchy. In Ethiopia, for instance, some 18 million nets have been distributed since that country's last household survey in 2005.
Despite this advance, between 130 million and 264 million nets are still needed to meet RBM's target of reaching 80 percent of pregnant women and under-fives at risk in Africa.
Another area of progress has been in treatment to rid patients of the mosquito-borne parasite that causes malaria.
Nearly all sub-Saharan African countries have switched their national drug policies to phase out old drugs (chloroquine and sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine) that have become useless through resistance and replace them with artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACT), said the report.
This treatment, which is based on a traditional Chinese herb, is about 10 times more expensive than the older drugs, and for years the higher cost discouraged many countries from making the switch.
However, production of ACT worldwide rose from four million in 2004 to 100 million in 2006, thus forcing down the price, and an influx of donor cash has helped many governments to procure the drug.
Even so, access to these drugs remains very low. Only a third of malaria-infected children have treatment of any kind, and those with access to ACT is typically two or three percent.
The simple bednet has become the spearheard of efforts to provide cheap, effective prevention against the disease.
A study in Kenya published last month in The Lancet found that using these nets can nearly halve deaths from malaria among under-fives.
Around half of the world's population of six billion live in areas where malaria occurs. In 107 countries, it is endemic, with sub-Saharan Africa worst hit.
Between 350 and 500 million cases of clinical malaria occur each year, causing around a million deaths, the report said.
Publication of the document coincided with a meeting on malaria hosted in Seattle by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.