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What is malaria?

Of all the infectious diseases that have plagued human history, Malaria has had the greatest toll on human life. Today it is estimated that over 1 million people die from the disease each year.

Malaria, so named by the Romans because they believed it arose from bad (mala) air (aire) floating up from nearby swamps, is in fact caused by a single-celled parasite, Plasmodium, which is transmitted by the bite of the Anopheles mosquito. 

Malaria infects people of all age groups; however, those who lack immunity - young children, pregnant women, and people living with HIV/AIDS - are more vulnerable to the disease.

It is believed that malaria existed prior to human life, as mosquitos preserved in Amber from the Pleistocene era (over 3 million years ago), have been found to contain the same parasite. This has allowed the disease to evolve alongside humankind, with the first record of humans being affected being over 3,000 years ago in preserved Egyptian mummies.

Who is at risk?

Prior to the 1930’s malaria was globally widespread, occurring across most of America and Europe.

Boundaries of Malaria Transmission 1900 - Source: Malaria Elimination Initiative (2011) UCSF Global Health Group

However with extensive eradication programmes, including spraying of DDT, Quinine tablets and land use change, malaria has declined or become locally eradicated in most of the ‘developed’ temperate regions.

There still remains approximately half of the world's population, 3.5 billion people, at risk from Malaria. Today 90% of Malaria cases occur within sub-Saharan Africa, further areas include parts of Asia, Latin America, and to a lesser extent the Middle East and Southern parts of Europe.

Boundaries of Malaria Transmission 1900 - Source: Malaria Elimination Initiative (2011) UCSF Global Health Group

Images: UCSF Global Health Group  (2011) 
Source: The Gates Foundation


The estimated number of countries in which Malaria is still prevalent 

216 million 

The estimated number of people who are infected with Malaria each year


The estimated number of deaths from Malaria in 2010. This figure is now thought to be significantly higher (see article below)

  Malaria death toll far higher than previously thought » 
(The Telegraph, 3 February 2012)


The percentage of childhood deaths in Africa which are caused by Malaria

Every minute

Somewhere in the world a child dies of Malaria

Sources: UNICEF and WHO, World Malaria Report 2008


The economic cost of Malaria

Malaria causes significant economic impacts, with the gross domestic product (GDP) of some infected nations declining by as much as 1.3% per year.

Over the long term, this can have a crippling effect to the economy, with the cumulative losses each year resulting in considerable difference in GDP between countries with, and without Malaria.

This leaves little money for prevention and treatment to be provided to the population, creating a downward spiral of poverty and ill-health.

Source: World Health Organisation (WHO)

Mosquito net by Andrea K Flickr
Image Source: Flickr Andrea K.

Though there is no vaccine for malaria, it is possible for it to be controlled with mosquito nets and insect repellant, and it is often treatable with antimalarial drugs.

Working to eradicate Malaria

Under the umbrella of the Roll Back Malaria (RBM) Partnership, there has been increased coordination, political attention, and funding, resulting in an unprecedented scale-up of effective interventions, including widespread provisions of insecticide-treated bed nets, insecticides, and the creation of new drug treatments. This has resulted in a 25% decline in global mortality rates since 2000.

Global efforts over the last decades have contributed to dramatic declines in Malaria around the world. Progress is also being made on the scientific front; new tools for controlling the disease are now being tested. By investing in proven malaria-control programs and accelerating promising research, it may be possible to move closer to the long-term goal of eradicating the disease.

Source: The Gates Foundation and Progress on Malaria report

Resistance to antimalarial drugs

As both the parasites and mosquitos are able to evolve rapidly, resistance to current malarial drugs is a strong possibility. This has been the case with previous medicines, including chloroquine and sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine (SP) which are both now almost ineffective.

If this were to happen to the current artemisinins drug, the public health consequences could be severe, as no alternative is likely to be available for five years. This makes the provision of insecticides and insecticide-treated bed nets of particular importance, as they will continue to provide an effective response, and together have been shown to reduce the mortality from malaria by half in affected regions.

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