Malaria cases and deaths from the mosquito-borne disease have both declined substantially in the Americas, according to an update by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).
From 200 to 2011, cases dropped 59% and deaths declined 70%, PAHO reported Thursday at its 6th Annual Malaria Day in the Americas Forum in Washingotn.
More than 541,000 confirmed malaria cases and 72 deaths from malaria were reported in 2011 in the region, PAHO says.
While the progress is impressive, it must continue, according to Dr. Socorro Gross, assistant director of PAHO. "We want to have zero cases and zero deaths," she told those attending the forum.
Worldwide, malaria affects 250 million people each year, PAHO says. About 655,000 worldwide die of the disease annually.
The decline in the Americas (and elsewhere) is credited largely to the World Health Organization initiative known as T3.
The T3 initaitive includes testing, treating and tracking. Under it, officials in malaria-endemic countries are urged to move to universal access to both testing and treatment. They are encouraged to build stronger malaria surveillance systems.
Under T3, public health officials in countries with endemic malaria should test all suspected cases and treat confirmed cases with antimalarial drugs.
Each country is urged to have a surveillance system that will help them form policy and operations about malaria control.
At the forum, three countries were named this year's Malaria Champions of the Americas: Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay.
The countries were recognized for making significant strides against malaria.
Paraguay got the top honor. Its National Malaria Control Program was cited for reducing malaria burden by following the initiative. As of 2011, the number of malaria cases reported there was down 99% compared to 2002. Paraguay last reported a malaria-related death in 1989.
The champions program was launched in 2008. It's a joint effort of PAHO and WHO, the Pan American Health Education Foundation and the George Washington University Center for Global Health.
Despite the good news about declining cases and deaths in the Americas, officials at the forum repeatedly expressed the need for continued vigilance and control efforts.
In the Americas, more than 23 million people live in areas of malaria risk, says Dr. Don Tharpe, president of the Pan American Health Education Foundation.
It is easy to forget how malaria can ravage lives, he says. The elderly and infants are most vulnerable. The economic and educational fallout are both substantial.
Public health programs that include education, bed nets and other precautions as well as spraying can help reduce transmission, he says.
A parasite, Plasmodium, causes malaria, which is transmitted by the bites of mosquitoes infected by the parasite.
Malaria symptoms, which typically occur with in 10 to 15 days after the bite, include headache, fever and vomiting.
Untreated malaria can be life-threatening as it disrupts blood from getting to vital organs.
In many areas, the parasites have become resistant to many malaria medicines.
In the U.S., about 1,500 cases of malaria are diagnosed each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of the cases area in travelers returning from endemic areas.
The risk is greatest for travelers to sub-Saharan Africa, the CDC says. but the risk is present in any country with malaria.