Malawi's campaign to fight malaria by providing free or cheap mosquito nets has failed to curb the number of deaths caused by the disease, a deputy health minister said Friday.
Up to 7,000 Malawians died of malaria in 2009, with 4.5 million cases recorded, even though the government provided one million free nets to young children and pregnant women the year before, Gloria Mwale said.
That is roughly the same number of deaths seen in 2007, when four million cases were recorded, she told an international conference on malaria in the commercial capital Blantyre.
"The disease is one of the major causes of deaths," she said, affecting more than one third of the nation's 12 million people.
Health experts say the government spends about seven million dollars (more than five million euros) annually to treat malaria cases.
Malaria is spread by mosquitos, and Malawi had hoped to fight the disease by giving one million insecticide-treated nets to young children and pregnant women, using money from the Global Fund and US aid.
Health officials say mosquito net coverage among pregnant women and children jumped to 65 percent in 2008, from six percent in 2000.
South African pop star Yvonne Chaka Chaka, who helped launch the drive in 2008 as a goodwill ambassador for the UN Children's Fund, said she was shocked by the data.
"This is unacceptable," she said. "Malaria is preventable and we can save lives by ensuring that pregnant mothers and under-five children sleep under treated mosquito nets. These nets cost only 700 Malawi kwacha (20 US cents) on the market."
Some 45 percent of Malawians live on one dollar a day. The country's per capita gross domestic product is around 210 dollars per year.