A year older, a year wiser: global progress against malaria in 2014

Community health workers perform a skit at the event in Kisumu. Photo: Michel Pacque.

Community health volunteers perform a skit in Kisumu, Kenya. Photo: Michel Pacque.

In the year 2000 the world was dancing to the music of The Backstreet Boys, losing its mind over Pokémon, and singing the praises of Lance Armstrong. At the time, the world was also home to 227 million cases of malaria. Generally speaking, we had a lot of improving to do. And in the years since, for the most part, we have—particularly when it comes to malaria.

Indeed, since 2000, malaria case incidence has decreased by 30 percent and malaria mortality rates have decreased by 47 percent worldwide and 54 percent in the WHO Africa Region. This according to the latest edition of the World Malaria Report, released at the end of 2014, a year that saw the malaria scourge confronted in a variety of ways.

Photo: Speak Up Africa.

Photo: Speak Up Africa.

This past year, countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where over 90 percent of malaria deaths occur, continued to demonstrate that they remain committed to the ultimate goal—the only long-term goal—of eliminating malaria once and for all. Senegal and Zambia, in particular, led the charge.

Senegal continued to be a model country in the fight against malaria with its ability to engage the private sector and galvanize communities. The country progressed further in its goal to eliminate malaria in Richard Toll district, and launched pre-elimination efforts in the Linguère, Ranérou, and Kanel districts. Senegal already has a bevy of success stories to its credit, and at this rate there should be many more in the years to come.

Once again at the forefront of the malaria elimination effort was Zambia, which continued to distribute lifesaving malaria commodities and utilized public-private partnerships to do so. But, perhaps most significantly, in 2014 the country embraced innovation largely in the form of a promising trial study that saw communities proactively provided with drugs that halt malaria transmission by killing the parasite. While this strategy, known as mass drug administration (MDA), is not without its challenges—such as explaining the approach to community members—if successful, it could be scaled up nationally and then across sub-Saharan Africa.

During the training, community health workers practiced using rapid diagnostic tests for malaria, which require taking a drop of blood from the patient’s finger and give results within 15 minutes. Photo: PATH/Lynn Heinisch.

A community health worker uses a rapid diagnostic test. Photo: PATH/Lynn Heinisch.

Elsewhere in Africa, malaria-endemic countries such as Kenya, which placed an emphasis on protecting its pregnant women from the disease, and Tanzania, in the midst of improving its approach to diagnosis and treatment, took great strides as well.

The malaria fight remains a global one, and in 2014 World Malaria Day once again served as a unifying reminder that the malaria community encompasses a wide range of fighters—such as researchers and community health workers—on a wide array of terrain—from Africa to the Asia-Pacific region.

As ever, this community faces significant obstacles; mosquitoes develop immunity to insecticides, and of the US$5.1 billion needed to achieve global malaria control and elimination targets, only US$2.7 billion was available, according to the latest World Malaria Report.

But 2014 was a year of progress, and while we may look back on it decades from now and shudder at our pop culture obsessions, we may also recognize it as a year where the world began to realize that the long-held idea of malaria as an unbeatable disease was always a myth.

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