The World Health Organization (WHO) has chosen April 25 as Malaria Awareness Day. The theme this year is “Sustain Gains, Save Lives: Invest in Malaria.”
WHO reports that thanks to investments in effective control methods, cases of this disease have significantly lessened in the past decade.
Still, 216 million cases of malaria occurred worldwide and an alarming number of deaths, especially among African children, have been reported. In 2010, malaria caused between 537,000 and 907,000 deaths, 80 to 90 percent of them in sub-Saharan Africa.
Malaria is endemic in all of Africa, some Asian countries and several Latin-American countries, especially those with forested areas like Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Perú and Ecuador. It has been eradicated in North America, Europe and most of the Middle East.
Malaria is caused by a parasite, which is transmitted via the bites of infected mosquitoes (Anopheles). The parasites travel in the bloodstream to the liver where they multiply and then invade red blood cells.
Symptoms, including fever, severe headache and vomiting, appear usually around 10 to 15 days after the mosquito bite. If left untreated, malaria can cause death but in most cases malaria is preventable and curable.
Prevention includes the use of prophylactic drugs (Malarone, Aralen) weeks ahead of travelling to risk areas; mosquito eradication, and the prevention of mosquito bites.
However, improper use of medication has given rise to a number of medication resistant parasites.
The main insecticide used in the past century was DDT; it left a residue in the walls for weeks. It proved effective in malaria control in the United States but because it’s a very toxic product, anti-DDT groups pushed to get it removed as the primary insecticide. WHO’s modern global malaria control strategy is based on case detection and treatment.
There is no current accepted vaccine for malaria, but researchers are actively looking for it.
Colombian pathologist Manuel Elkin Patarroyo developed a synthetic vaccine for malaria in the 1980s. The vaccine was evaluated in several African countries and although in 2009 a comprehensive Cochrane review assessed the vaccine as having a low but statistically significant efficacy of 28 percent in South America, the WHO presently lists the vaccine as inactive.
WHO’s hope is that a continued investment in malaria control “will propel malaria-endemic countries toward near-zero deaths by 2015 and achieving the Millennium Development Goals, especially those relating to improving child survival and maternal health, eradicating extreme poverty and expanding access to education.”