April 25, 2017
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Top five stories for World Malaria Day 2017

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WHO’s latest estimates for malaria show that many countries with ongoing transmission significantly reduced their disease burden in recent years. From 2010 to 2015, new cases declined 21% and death rates fell 29%.

According to WHO’s 2016 Malaria Report, released in December, the percentage of people using insecticide-treated nets increased from 30% in 2010 to 53% in 2015. In addition, preventive malaria treatments for pregnant women increased fivefold during this period. However, WHO officials warn that gaps in funding and weak health care systems could threaten recent progress. Therefore, the organization is calling on its partners to boost investments for malaria prevention.

Margaret Chan
Margaret Chan

“WHO-recommended tools have made a measurable difference in the global malaria fight,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, MD, said in a press release. “But we need a much bigger push for prevention — especially in Africa, which bears the greatest burden of malaria.”

Today, WHO participates in the international observance of World Malaria Day, recognized each year on April 25 to highlight progress, but also the need for continued investments in malaria prevention and control.

“On this World Malaria Day we can celebrate advances in the control and elimination of malaria, but we also must appreciate that we have a long way to go,” Philip Rosenthal, MD, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, told Infectious Disease News. “Malaria deaths are down; the WHO estimates a 62% decrease since 2000. This improvement is likely due in part to improved measures to control malarious mosquitoes and to treat those infected with malaria parasites.”

Photo of Philip Rosenthal
Philip Rosenthal

According to Rosenthal, malaria has been eliminated in a number of countries over the past decade, notably in Sri Lanka. However, an estimated 429,000 deaths from malaria occurred in 2015, and the disease “remains a huge cause of morbidity and mortality in much of the tropics, and in particular, in sub-Saharan Africa,” he said.

To help combat malaria in Africa, WHO announced yesterday that the promising malaria vaccine candidate RTS.S will be distributed in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi during a pilot implementation program that begins in 2018. The RTS,S vaccine was first developed in the 1980s. Since then, it has been evaluated in multiple studies, including a phase 3 trial that enrolled more than 15,000 infants and young children in seven African countries. The vaccine had previously received a “positive scientific opinion” from European Medicines Agency, according to a press release.

During the pilot program, researchers will assess the vaccine’s safety and efficacy in children aged 5 to 17 months and the feasibility of delivering the required four doses. The program is supported by a recent $15 million grant from The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, as well as previously established funding from UNITAID (up to $13.2 million), Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (up to $27.5 million) and WHO ($17 million).

Although global malaria investments increased between 2000 and 2010, WHO reported that funding has since flatlined. Approximately $2.9 billion was available for malaria control efforts in 2015, which is less than half of the $6.4 billion funding milestone for 2020.

“Moving forward, available control measures offer the opportunity to continue progress toward the control and eventual eradication of malaria, and new tools including new drugs, new insecticides, and possibly new vaccines will facilitate this effort,” Rosenthal said. “However, progress is dependent on continued international funding for malaria control and research efforts, and calls to decrease funding for international research are of great concern.”

To mark the occasion of World Malaria Day, Infectious Disease News has compiled a list of the top five stories in malaria over the past year.

Malaria hospitalizations in US more common than realized

Malaria hospitalizations in the United States are more common than previously thought, possibly due to increased travel to regions where the disease is endemic, researchers said.

As more infected travelers return to the U.S., clinicians must develop strategies to combat the potentially fatal disease, the researchers wrote in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. Read more.

Treated bed nets still effective against malaria, but resistance a concern

Researchers say the treated bed nets that have prevented hundreds of millions of cases of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa during the past 15 years continue to work against the life-threatening disease despite a rise in insecticide resistance among the mosquitoes that transmit the infection. Read more.

FDA grants fast track designation for malaria vaccine

Sanaria announced in September that it has received fast track designation from the FDA for its investigational malaria vaccine, the only one of its kind to receive such a designation.

The PfSPZ Vaccine is a live-attenuated Plasmodium falciparum sporozoite vaccine. The fast track designation, which is meant to speed up the development and review of drugs intended to treat serious conditions and fill unmet medical needs, will make the preventive malaria vaccine eligible for accelerated approval and priority review, potentially bringing it to market more quickly. Read more.

Malaria death rate drops in sub-Saharan Africa

Data published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that the number of malaria-related deaths declined nearly 60% in sub-Saharan Africa over the past 15 years.

“Substantial progress has been made in reducing the burden of malaria, but a large unfinished agenda remains,” Peter W. Gething, PhD, of the University of Oxford, and colleagues wrote. “The risk of death from malaria is a complicated function of environmental, demographic, and programmatic factors that can result in highly localized patterns of risk.” Read more.

ACT recommended for P. falciparum malaria warrants improvement

Artemether-lumefantrine, a recommended artemisinin-based combination therapy, failed to treat four imported cases of Plasmodium falciparum malaria in the U.K., suggesting the efficacy of this front-line defense could deteriorate in the future, according to a brief report. Read more.

– by Stephanie Viguers

Disclosure: Rosenthal reports no relevant financial disclosures.