Significant progress has been made in the fight against malaria in Africa thanks to widespread distribution of mosquito nets and artemisinin, a Chinese drug made from wormwood, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Thursday.
"We saw a very drastic impact," said Dr. Arata Kochi, chief of malaria for the WHO. "If this is done everywhere, we can reduce the disease burden 80 to 85 percent in most African countries within five years."
"This is extremely exciting," said Dr. Michel Kazatchkine, executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. "If we can scale up like this everywhere, we should be able to eliminate malaria as a major public health threat in many countries."
WHO researchers looked at programs in four countries that tried to distribute mosquito nets to the families of every child under 5, and medicines containing artemisinin to every public clinic. And the results were heartening.
Rwanda, a small country that handed out three million nets in two months in 2006, had 66 percent fewer child malaria deaths in 2007 than in 2005.
Ethiopia, much larger, took almost two years to hand out 20 million nets; it cut deaths of children in half.
Zambia, Dr. Kochi said, had only about a 33 percent drop in overall deaths because nets ran short and many districts ran out of medicine. But those areas without such problems had 50 to 60 percent reductions, he said.
Ghana was a bit of a mystery, according to the report. It got little money from the Global Fund, Dr. Kochi said, and so bought few nets and had to charge patients for drugs. Malaria deaths nonetheless fell 34 percent, but deaths among children for other reasons dropped 42 percent.
Holding drives to distribute insecticide-impregnated nets is a growing trend, now that the Global Fund, the President's Malaria Initiative, United Nations agencies, the World Bank and private fund-raisers like AgainstMalaria.org have offered hundreds of millions of dollars. Such drives must be continuous because "permanent" nets wear out after three to five years, New York Times reports.
In Africa, malaria is a major killer of children, but so are diarrhea and pneumonia, which have multiple causes, as well as measles, which has been declining as the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization has expanded.
Until the recent infusions of money from international donors and the reorganization of malaria leadership at the WHO, the fight against malaria had been in perilous shape, with nets scarce, many countries using outdated or counterfeit medicines, spraying programs dormant and diagnoses careless.
Even the most commonly cited mortality figure — one million deaths of children a year — has always been no more than an educated guess, it is felt.