Finally, Good News About Malaria: 6 Reasons Fewer People Are Dying

Death rates for the disease that once killed nearly 900,000 people in one year have dropped by half.

(Photo: Celia Lebur/Getty Images)

Dec 11, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Vince Beiser has reported from more than two dozen countries for Wired, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and others. In 2014 he won the Media for Liberty Award.

Ebola is still dominating the headlines out of Africa, but away from the media spotlight there’s good news in the battle against a disease that kills far more people: malaria. The rate of deaths caused by the mosquito-borne illness has been cut in half in the last 13 years, according to a World Health Organization report released this week. In 2000, the disease claimed 882,000 lives; last year, that number dropped to 584,000. Taking into account population growth over that time, that works out to a 47 percent drop in mortality rates; the fall was even further in Africa, where 90 percent of all malaria deaths occur.

So how exactly is this war being won? Here are some of the key tactics, according to the report:

1. Mosquito nets

People get malaria from mosquito bites, so keeping the little critters away from people is an obvious step. One simple, cheap way to do that is by putting up mosquito nets around sleeping areas. In 2000, hardly any Africans slept under insecticide-treated nets; today, more than 40 percent do, including more than half of all pregnant women and small children. Health agencies delivered another 214 million bed nets to Africa this year, nearly all of them free of charge.

(Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

2. Insecticide spray

No one wants to spray insecticides in the home—but it sure beats contracting a potentially fatal disease. In 2013, at least 123 million people around the world were protected from malaria by indoor spraying. Only 55 million of them, however, were in Africa, the region most at risk.

3. Preventive therapies for pregnant women

Administering antimalarial drugs like sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine to pregnant women can cut their risk of infection substantially. The number of women getting these treatments is relatively low, but it is increasing. According to WHO, 57 percent of pregnant women in the 37 countries that use this method received at least one dose of “chemoprevention.”

A nurse checks the health of a woman in a portable clinic, part of program to provide treatment against Malaria for pregnant women, Thailand. (Photo: Thierry Falise/Getty Images)

4. Rapid diagnosis

In 2005, national health officials distributed fewer than 200,000 rapid diagnostic tests, pregnancy test–type kits that involve placing a blood drop on a pad that shows whether malaria antigens are present. Last year, the figure topped 160 million. The quality of these tests has also improved in recent years. Meanwhile, the number of more-reliable tests performed with high-quality microscopes has swelled to 197 million.

5. Widespread treatment

Artemisinin-based combination therapies can be used against most strains of malaria. The number of ACT courses distributed by health officials has nearly doubled since 2009 to 181 million. Only 5 percent of children with malaria in sub-Saharan Africa got an ACT in 2005; that figure has at least doubled since.

A mother of children suffering from malaria shows antimalarial drugs she holds in her hand at a small medical center in Mapimo, South Kivu, the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Photo: Tomas Kubes/Getty Images)

6. Increased funding worldwide

All of this costs money, of course. Worldwide funding for malaria control and elimination totaled $2.7 billion last year—three times the figure in 2005. Still, that’s far short of the $5.1 billion WHO estimates is required. Millions of people in malaria zones still lack bed nets and access to treatment. “We can win the fight against malaria,” said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan in a statement. “We have the right tools, and our defenses are working. But we still need to get those tools to a lot more people if we are to make these gains sustainable.”