We can eradicate deaths from malaria if we build on gains and work hard to reach the goal of near zero deaths by 2015 an envoy of the United Nations told a press conference at UN Headquarters in New York on Monday, World Malaria Day.

Ray Chambers, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Envoy for Malaria told reporters:

“Our goal is to reach close to zero deaths from malaria by 2015.”

“There is much work to be done – many hurdles – but we are optimistic that we can achieve that goal,” said Chambers, who Ban described as a “philanthropist and humanitarian who has directed most of his efforts towards at-risk youth” when he appointed the American in February 2008.

Chambers’ message follows the Secretary General’s plea last week for the world to step up its existing efforts if the goal of near zero deaths is to be attained by 2015. Dramatic results have been achieved, but “we need to ensure universal coverage for all people at risk,” said Ban.

Malaria, a disease that infects humans bitten by parasite-carrying mosquitoes, is preventable and curable, but it currently kills nearly 800,000 people every year, most of them in Africa, where a child dies every 45 seconds from the disease.

According to UNICEF, the UN charity for children’s rights, fighting malaria does more than save children’s lives, it brings health and economic benefits, eases the burden on health systems, improves the health of pregnant women and young children, and reduces deaths from malnutrition.

UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said the challenge was to protect every child who is at risk, whether it is giving them effective treatment, insecticide-treated bed nets, or proper diagnosis:

“We cannot leave some children exposed to malaria and other children safe,” urged Lake.

Chambers told the press that global initiatives are making progress in the fight against the disease: 11 African countries where the disease is endemic are now reporting a 50% fall in deaths, he said, adding that the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar reported no deaths from malaria when he visited there last year.

In a separate statement he issued with the Roll Back Malaria partnership, Chambers, said:

“The Secretary-General’s malaria goals have galvanized funding and implementing partners, together with African leaders and others at the forefront of the effort, and the results of this partnership are translating directly into lives saved in historic proportions.”

The Roll Back Malaria (RBM) partnership, which includes Chambers’ office, is the global framework that coordinates action against malaria. There are over 500 partners in the RBM, including countries where malaria is endemic, development partners, private sector members, nongovernment and community organizations, foundations, academic and research centres.

Chambers said in recent years nearly $5 billion has been invested in anti-malaria initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa, with “immense” returns.

As well as making effective treatments available, the RBM has campaigned for insecticide-treated bed nets to be given to all people living in countries where malaria is endemic. To date, more than 300 million nets have been distributed in Africa and 75 million people receive indoor residual spraying.

Nearly 750,000 lives have been saved in the past decade because of access to diagnostic tests and effective treatments, said the joint statement.

Ban said there was much to celebrate on World Malaria Day, “since 2008, more than 600 million Africans have been spared terrible suffering”.

But he stressed the need for continuing with “an extraordinary intensification of our actions”, to reach the goal of near zero deaths by 2015.

His plea was echoed by representatives from donor organizations, including the three largest donors, the World Bank, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and the United States’ President’s Malaria Initiative.

Together with UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the RBM, they said that investing in malaria also helps towards achieving all the health-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

RBM’s executive director, Awa Marie Coll-Seck, told the press conference at UN headquarters that she could see the effects of the anti-malaria initiatives bearing fruit in her own country, Senegal. Coll-Seck talked about when she used to work as a doctor in Senegal and treat children dying with malaria. There were so many they had to lay them on tables.

Malaria used to be the main cause of doctor visits, hospital admissions and death, said Coll-Seck, but now:

“When I go back today to the same country, what I see in hospitals is that often you have some beds empty.”

“It is amazing change,” she added, but warned that these gains are “very fragile and we need to maintain the work we are doing, we need to maintain and push for more leadership and ownership by countries”.

Singer songwriter Mandy Moore also spoke at the press conference. She is an Ambassador for Population Services International, and described her recent trip to the Central African Republic as part of the UN’s “Nothing but Nets” campaign. There she met a mother who in one month, had lost two children to malaria, but stoically and eloquently said she would now be able to protect the rest of her family after receiving a insecticide-treated net through the campaign. Moore said she was now determined to spread the story of this and millions of other mothers in similiar situations.

There was also praise and gratitude for the role of the private sector in the fight to eradicate deaths from malaria.

At a breakfast meeting that the RBM arranged for its corporate partners, Deputy UN Secretary General Asha-Rose Migiro said the sense of “global citizenship” expressed by contributors from the private sector and their engagement and commitment to the fight against malaria, was helping to relieve “the untenable burden that this disease places on millions of people”.

“In doing so, you will help avert the tremendous loss of productivity that is among malaria’s terrible tolls,” she added.

Sources: UN, RBM.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD