Nearly half the world’s population – roughly 3.3 billion people – are at risk of contracting malaria. Though individuals in Latin America, the Middle East, and Europe are among those most often affected by the disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 98 percent of global malaria deaths occur in 35 countries – 30 of them in sub-Saharan Africa and five in Asia. Every year there are nearly 250 million cases and an average of one million deaths due to malaria. Reports show that in 2008, an estimated 863,000 people died from malaria infection, indicating some improvement in diagnosis and treatment outcomes. Transmission is possible to any individual, however some groups are at an increased risk. These include young children who have not yet developed full immunity, pregnant women whose immunity has been decreased by pregnancy, international travelers who lack immunity, and individuals with HIV/AIDS or others with compromised immune systems.
Malaria is a preventable and curable acute febrile illness caused by the bite of Anopheles mosquitoes which have been infected with Plasmodium parasites. The long lifespan of the Anopheles species found in Africa contributes to the disease’s prevalence in the region, and experts note that more than 85 percent of the world’s malaria deaths occur in Africa. Symptoms are usually seen seven days after the infective mosquito bite, and include fever, headache, chills, and vomiting. If diagnosed quickly, malaria can be treated using artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT), however if treatment is not initiated, malaria can progress and lead to severe anemia, respiratory distress, or death.
In countries where malaria is endemic, access to diagnostic tools and medications may be limited. Less than 15 percent of these individuals are able to begin treatment within 24 hours of the onset of fever, which is when treatment must be started. Malaria diagnosis relies on either microscopy or rapid test procedures to allow healthcare providers to quickly determine if patients have the disease and require treatment. The Malaria Product Testing Evaluation Programme recently completed an assessment of 29 rapid diagnostic tests and found that 16 of them met the minimum performance criteria set by the WHO. According to Robert Newman, the director of the WHO’s Global Malaria Programme, using rapid tests allows healthcare providers to “test people who cannot access diagnosis based on microscopy in remote, rural areas where the majority of malaria occurs” and thus improves treatment outcomes.
In addition to improved testing, global efforts are underway to control malaria by eliminating the mosquitoes that transmit the disease. During the past decade, the distribution of treated bed nets has increased rapidly in 11 African nations, helping to reduce infection rates. Reports indicate that in 2008, 31 percent of African homes had insecticide-treated nets (ITNs), compared with 17 percent in 2006. Through the use of ITNs, as well as spraying of homes with insecticide chemicals, 10 African nations reduced the number of cases of malaria by at least 50 percent between 2000 and 2008.
Though there is no vaccine for malaria, more effective prevention measures, diagnostic tests, and medications can help to improve treatment outcomes for those affected. Government agencies, including the World Bank, and other groups, such as Roll Back Malaria global partnership, have made efforts to increase global awareness about malaria. By utilizing social media and online tools it has been possible to improve the effectiveness of outreach and fundraising for efforts which may help to eradicate malaria worldwide.