Malaria mortality rates remain unacceptably high, senior UN official says

A child sleeps under a malaria bednet

23 April 2010 – The head of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) today described as “unacceptable” the fact that 850,000 people still die from malaria every year even though simple insecticide-treated mosquito nets could significantly reduce mortality if made readily available to all people in regions where the disease is endemic.

“As we commemorate World Malaria Day 2010, there are only 250 days left to meet the challenge set by the UN Secretary-General for all endemic countries to achieve universal coverage with essential malaria control interventions by 31 December 2010,” said Ann Veneman, UNICEF’s executive director said in a statement ahead of the day, which will be marked on Sunday.

“It is unacceptable that around 850,000 people annually still die from a mosquito bite. Of those who die from malaria each year, nearly 90 per cent of them live in sub-Saharan Africa, and the majority of those deaths are children under five years old. This shocking disparity is even more unacceptable,” she added.

Ms. Veneman acknowledged that there had been a significant increase in insecticide-treated bed net (ITN) coverage in several African countries, largely due to widespread national distribution campaigns with an emphasis on reaching those most in danger of contracting malaria.

“Evidence shows that malaria control interventions work, but they need to be scaled up even more to achieve the 2010 goal. The dual approach in the fight against malaria – from better coverage of ITNs to increased use of artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs) to treat patients – is what is needed to help save hundreds of thousands of lives,” Ms. Veneman said.

Strong collaboration among governments, donors, international organizations, the private sector, civil society and faith-based organizations, have driven much of the success in combating the disease, she added.

She said a successful anti-malaria campaign could lead to other benefits including reducing pressure on health centres, cutting down mortality rates among those infected with HIV/AIDS because malaria further weakens AIDS patients, and improving the health of pregnant mothers and that of their babies.

In a related development, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) reports that a new evaluation of malaria rapid diagnostic tests will help health workers quickly identify patients who have the disease and need immediate treatment, putting into action the agency’s recent recommendation that malaria diagnosis be confirmed before treatment.

The malaria product testing evaluation programme recently completed a new assessment of the performance of 29 rapid diagnostic tests and found that 16 of them met minimum performance criteria set by WHO, the agency said.

“These rapid tests have been a major breakthrough in malaria control,” said Robert Newman, director of WHO's Global Malaria Programme. “They allow us to test people who cannot access diagnosis based on microscopy in remote, rural areas where the majority of malaria occurs,” he added.

In 2008, just 22 per cent of suspected malaria cases were tested in 18 of 35 African countries reporting data. Universal diagnosis would enable health workers to identify which patients with fever have malaria and need life-saving antimalarial drugs, and which ones have other causes of illness and require alternative treatment. With 38 tests that now meet minimum performance criteria, malaria-endemic countries and donors have a wider choice of tests which have been assessed for quality and reliability.

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