Will efforts to eradicate the killer disease overcome technical, finanicial and political obstacles?
by Don Cayo
The global death toll from malaria has dropped dramatically in just over a decade – more than 25 per cent overall and 33 per cent in hard-hit sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Health Organization. Yet the WHO reckons that malaria still kills more than 625,000 people a year – roughly equal to the population of Vancouver – and some estimates, including one published two years ago by The Lancet, suggests that the WHO’s figures reflect only about half the actual total. As well, country-by-country statistics make clear that progress in combating this killer disease is both fragile and spotty. For example, while the number of deaths reported in Tanzania plummeted from more than 20,000 in 2005 to just 840 in 2009, next door in the Democratic Republic of Congo the toll soared from fewer than 15,000 to well over 20,000 in the same period.
Today malaria is almost exclusively a tropical disease, but until a century ago or even less, it was also found in much of Europe and North America. Variants of the anopheles mosquito, which carries the parasite that causes malaria, are still common across Canada and in most temperate countries, but good public health measures have extirpated the parasite. Thus the disease is no longer endemic in any developed country, though imported cases crop up from time to time.
But while the rich places – southern Europe, Washington, D.C., the U.S. South, Ottawa – eliminated it years ago, malaria doesn’t strike only the poor. In the fall of 2013 I set out on a round-the-world trip (supported by my employer, the Vancouver Sun, and funded by a grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research) to investigate all aspects of malaria. Most malaria workers I interviewed, even professionals in malaria-endemic parts of the world who are well paid by their countries’ standards, had had bouts of it themselves and had seen it in their families.