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In the shadow of Ebola, malaria remains public enemy #1


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1 September 2014 –As the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa has captured the media’s attention, Malaria silently continues to claim victims far from headlines.

Since the Ebola outbreak, 1,552 deaths have been confirmed as consequences of the virus. What we forget, is that a child dies every minute from malaria on the African continent, despite the fact that malaria mortality rates among children have been reduced by an estimated 54% since 2000. That means 60 children an hour, 1,440 a day, 10,080 a week. Although preventable and curable, malaria caused an estimated 627,000 deaths (with an uncertainty range of 473,000 to 789,000) in 2012, mostly among African children.

Far less people have died as a result of the Ebola outbreak than malaria, and Sandrine Cabu of Doctor’s Without Borders explaines to Le Monde that Ebola actually is deadly only when mistreated. Proper hydration and medication can significantly improve a person’s chance of survival. Victims of Ebola often die as a result of a lack of proper access to treatment as of the virus itself.

Yet, as doctors fight to contain the virulent outbreak in Africa, malaria brings on another threat – this time in Asia. Public health experts and scientists warn history's third major bout of drug-resistant malaria could spread across Asia to Africa unless "radical action" is taken.

Unlike Ebola, which at the moment remains concentrated on the African continent, almost 40 percent of the world's population is exposed to malaria. In 2012, it killed 627,000 people globally; WHO estimates that 207 million cases were detected worldwide that year. The particular danger of Malaria is that the mosquito-borne parasite mutates to resist popular treatment drugs.

The illness has already mutated twice to become resistant to treatments, and threatens to do so again. Patrick Kachur, a medical epidemiologist and chief of the Malaria Branch of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said to IRIN news that, "The massive global effort to scale up effective malaria treatment and prevention that has saved more than three million lives in the last decade could be reversed," should the disease spread from Southeast Asia to Africa.

The 2007 WHA resolution calling for the elimination of monotherapies (use of a single drug) to treat malaria came as a reaction to evidence that this was not only ineffective treatment, but caused the parasite to mutate to resist such medicines. In May 2014, WHO admitted that "despite comprehensive regulatory action and substantial progress, [oral Artemisinin monotherapy] is still available in many countries," and called for "intensified action" to eliminate the use of these treatments. Yet, it seems in some parts of Southeast Asia, the parasite has already mutated.

In 2014 half a million people will die from Malaria worldwide. As we tackle the menace of the Ebola virus and seek to provide treatments to those in need in West Africa, the threat a new treatment-resistant parasite poses to the African continent needs to be addressed soon.

UNNRIC's related links:

UNRIC's article on vector borne diseases
UNRIC's article on malaria testing
UNRIC's article on World Malaria Day


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