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Innovation core to renewed commitment toward malaria-free region

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Cambodia’s health minister Mam Bun Heng (centre) and World Health Organisation (WHO) to Cambodia Li Ailan (far right) hold a mosquito net during an event to mark National Malaria Day in Kampong Speu province on April 24. KAMPONG SPEU ADMINISTRATION

Innovation core to renewed commitment toward malaria-free region

The fight against malaria, a disease which is preventable and treatable, is ongoing for many decades now. Unfortunately, this vector-borne disease continues to claim several thousands of lives globally. According to WHO’s latest World malaria report, there were an estimated 241 million malaria cases and 627,000 malaria deaths worldwide in 2020.

Malaria is a persistent public health threat in the WHO Southeast Asia region, where nine of the 11 member states are endemic. However, progress has been remarkable in the region. Malaria cases reduced by 78 per cent, from 23 million in 2000 to about 5 million in 2020; and incidence reduced by 83 per cent, from about 18 cases per 1,000 population at risk in 2000 to about three cases in 2020.

Overcoming all odds, Maldives and Sri Lanka have eliminated malaria and thereafter retained their malaria-free status. Southeast Asia is the only WHO region that reached the Global Technical Strategy for Malaria 2020 milestones of a 40 per cent reduction in malaria case incidence and mortality (compared with the 2015 baseline).

This success in the region propels us to further accelerate efforts to put an end to malaria. As such the region accounts for only two per cent of the global burden of malaria cases and has exhibited strong political commitment to reach this milestone. In 2017, health ministers from all member states of the WHO Southeast Asia region committed to taking actions that would eliminate malaria from each of the countries and make the region malaria-free by 2030 or earlier.

Reaching zero malaria – the Sustainable Development Goal 3.3 target, a commitment made in the resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly and the World Health Assembly – will be an unqualified success not only for the region but for the entire world.

Though we now have reason to be more optimistic than ever, success will not be easy. Despite steady advances in last two decades, progress has slowed or stalled in recent years, especially in the Covid-19 pandemic era. Globally, about 14 million more cases and 69 000 more deaths were reported in 2020 compared with 2019. Approximately two-thirds of these additional deaths (47 000) were linked to disruptions in the provision of malaria prevention, diagnosis and treatment services during the pandemic.

Thankfully, no major increase was evident in the malaria burden in the Southeast Asia region in 2020. However, continuation of this trend in the region is not guaranteed, and reversal can happen any moment in the absence of prompt action. Currently, apart from Covid-19 pandemic disruptions, significant geographical and risk-group related heterogeneity, drugs and insecticide resistance, lack of sensitive diagnostic tools, limited private sector engagement, and service access are other major challenges in the region.

The theme of the recently observed World Malaria Day 2022 is to “Harness innovation to reduce the malaria disease burden and save lives.” In view of the current situation and threats, the theme is indeed apt for the region. Given the diversity among and within the member states of the region, one-size solutions will not fit in all contexts. Hence, we need to explore new ideas and adopt innovations to reach our targets ensuring service delivery to the unreached.

We need to re-emphasise and re-focus on malaria elimination among public health administrators and managers to sustain the gains, accelerate the progress in high-burden countries and innovate to improve and expand service delivery through sharing evidence of best practices.

The theme of the recently observed World Malaria Day 2022 is to “Harness innovation to reduce the malaria disease burden and save lives.” In view of the current situation and threats, the theme is indeed apt for the region. Given the diversity among and within the member states of the region, one-size solutions will not fit in all contexts. Hence, we need to explore new ideas and adopt innovations to reach our targets ensuring service delivery to the unreached. We need to re-emphasise and re-focus on malaria elimination among public health administrators and managers to sustain the gains, accelerate the progress in high-burden countries and innovate to improve and expand service delivery through sharing evidence of best practices.

The way forward is clear: Member states that have eliminated malaria should be supported to remain malaria-free, including preventing the importation of new cases. Member states that are now within reach of eliminating malaria need to be supported in achieving and sustaining elimination at the earliest possible. And high-burden countries with diverse geographical and population contexts need to take subnational and locally relevant approaches to ensure a speedier trajectory toward malaria elimination.

All these approaches will require investment and innovation to bring new vector control approaches, diagnostics, antimalarial medicines and other tools to speed the pace of progress.

In addition, nascent issues around drug resistance need to be addressed sooner than later.

Malaria elimination is a national, regional and global “good”. This vision, which not long ago would have been considered fanciful, is now within our grasp. The returns in human wellbeing and economic productivity outstrips the additional investments required in the rest of the current decade.

WHO remains committed to a malaria-free Southeast Asia region by 2030. We urge leaders, partners and stakeholders across the region to renew the commitment to hasten malaria elimination efforts towards the “end game”.

Eliminating malaria once and for all lays a firm foundation for a healthier, more equitable and more prosperous region.

Poonam Khetrapal Singh is regional director of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Southeast Asia region.

THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

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