Kenya on Thursday said it has almost halved malaria deaths among small children by using insecticidal nets, spurring calls for free nets for all to tackle Africa's biggest killer. Health Minister Charity Ngilu said the distribution of 13.4 million nets over the past five years to children and pregnant women had helped curtail infections, a key success against a disease threatening 40 percent of the world's population.
"Childhood deaths have been reduced by 44 percent in high-risk districts, in-patient malaria cases and deaths are falling (and) there are reduced cases at the community level," she said in a statement.
"For every 1,000 treated nets used, seven children who might have died of malaria are saved."
Malaria kills 34,000 children under the age of five each year in Kenya, and threatens the lives of more than 25 million people out of a population of 34 million, the ministry said.
Children sleeping under insecticidal nets (ITNs) in high risk areas are 44 percent less likely to die, according to a survey carried out in four districts.
The government has distributed 12 million doses of artemisinin-based therapy (ACT), the latest anti-malaria drug cocktail to replace the mono-therapies that had developed resistance.
The government and donors spent 4.7 billion shillings (70 million dollars/52 million euros) on the campaign, yet the funds were not enough.
"The impact we have seen and the lessons we have learnt through massively distributing INTs, rather than selectively marketing and selling them, will not only benefit Kenya's children but all Africa's children," she said.
The World Health Organisation said in a statement it had abandoned its earlier guideline of targeting vulnerable groups -- under fives and pregnant women -- in favour of "making their proctection immediate while achieving full coverage."
WHO chief Margaret Chan said Kenya's success "serves as a model that should be replicated throughout malarious countries in Africa."
"This data from Kenya ends the debate about how to deliver the long-lasting nets. No longer should the safety or well-being of your family be based upon whether you ar rich or poor," said WHO's Global Malaria Programme Director Arata Kochi.
Chan and Kochi criticised the "social marketing" model widely backed by donors of distributing ITNs by selling them at subsidised rates and raising awareness of their importance.
Although supporting anti-malaria campaigns, public health watchers have chided British and US foreign development agencies for pushing for social marketing in the world's poorest continent.
The WHO launched a global programme in 1955 to eradicate malaria, which has frustrated attempts to create a vaccine owing to its constant mutations.
Using dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), a powerful insecticide, and the drug chroloquine, it managed to eradicated the disease in the West by the 1960s.
But the disease persisted in the humid and low-lying tropics in sub-Saharan Africa. By 1969, the programme collapsed as financing withered in the face of rising poverty, political unheaval and surging opposition to DDT.
Kochi said the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants allowed the use of DDT in endemic countries for "public health only" and Uganda and Malawi were the only African nations keen on the chemical.