Rolling back malaria

By James Addis, Senior Editor

Dr. Mark Maire (Courtesy Mark Maire)

With World Malaria Day coming up on April 25, I thought it would be worth giving Dr. Mark Maire a call to get a feel for how the global campaign to eradicate malaria was working out and how World Vision’s efforts in particular were coming along.

Mark is a World Vision infectious disease specialist who works out of World Vision’s Washington D.C. office. I’m based on the West Coast, so we don’t meet often. In fact, the last time we spoke was about a year ago when I did a brief Q&A interview with him which appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of World Vision magazine.

Back then, Mark was full of enthusiasm. World Vision was about to launch a malaria campaign which aimed to deliver 3 million bed nets in Zambia, Mozambique, Mali and Kenya—part of an ambitious global strategy to cut malaria infections by 75 percent and perhaps get close to zero child deaths in World Vision project areas by 2015.

So how are we doing? Mark remains cautiously optimistic. Unfortunately, the economic meltdown last year meant less money has been available and progress has not been as rapid as he hoped. All the same, World Vision has completed the distribution of 301,000 nets in Zambia and plans to begin distribution in Mozambique later this year. Kenya and Mali will probably start getting their nets in 2011. Meanwhile, the organization has dramatically increased its original goal. World Vision now aims to distribute 10.6 million nets and will add Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda, Malawi, and India to the list of countries to benefit.

Beyond World Vision’s efforts, the overall global Roll Back Malaria campaign (led by a partnership of U.N. and other humanitarian organizations including World Vision) is also running a bit behind schedule. Over the last three years about 200 million bed nets have reached Africa, an impressive number but still about 155 million short of the goal of universal coverage—something that was hoped to be achieved this year but now looks unlikely.

Still, the number of people who are being killed by malaria has already been dramatically reduced in many countries. Some, such as Eritrea and Zambia, have seen death rates cut by more than 50 percent.

Mark says such good news means we need to be wary of dropping our guard. As malaria prevalence declines, funding for anti-malaria initiatives can dry up and people living in malaria-prone communities can start getting lax about using nets. This can be fatal because during periods of low malaria prevalence people’s resistance to the disease is also lowered. This means if malaria does make an unwelcome comeback it will be even more deadly than before.

However, assuming the current energy to combat malaria is maintained and communities can be persuaded to remain vigilant, Mark thinks it’s perfectly possible that the goal of close to zero child deaths in World Vision project areas might still be achieved by 2015. Given malaria is the biggest killer of children in those areas it would be a tremendous accomplishment.

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