Less than 1% of funds for health research and development (R&D) is invested globally in developing new tools for preventing and treating malaria, a World Health Organization (WHO) report said on Friday.
The apex health agency also flagged the urgent need for progress on advance universal health coverage and improve access to services, and better surveillance to guide a more targeted malaria response. The findings have emerged in a report from WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group on Malaria Eradication (SAGme).
“To achieve a malaria-free world we must reinvigorate the drive to find the transformative strategies and tools that can be tailored to the local situation. Business as usual is not only slowing progress, but it is sending us backwards," said Marcel Tanner, Chair of the SAGme.
The WHO has said eradicating malaria would save lives and boost economies. The health benefits would be greatest among some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. Children under five account for 61% of all malaria deaths.
Global malaria infection and death rates have remained virtually unchanged since 2015. WHO’s World Malaria Report in 2018 revealed that the world is currently off track to achieve the 2030 goals set out in the WHO Global Technical Strategy for malaria 2016-2030 -- i.e. a 90% reduction in malaria case incidence and mortality rate. In many countries, access to health services remains a major challenge.
The group’s analyses showed that scaling up current malaria interventions would prevent an additional 2 billion malaria cases and 4 million deaths by 2030, provided those interventions reach 90% of the population in the 29 countries that account for 95% of the global burden.
The cost of this scale-up is estimated to be US$ 34 billion. The economic gain would be around US$ 283 billion in total gross domestic product (GDP) — a benefit to cost ratio in excess of 8:1. “Most of the tools being used to tackle malaria today were developed in the last century or even earlier: insecticide-treated mosquito nets, indoor residual spraying, rapid diagnostic tests and drugs based on artemisinin," the report said.
SAGme highlights the urgent need to scale up R&D to strengthen this pipeline, pointing to the Malaria Eradication Research Agenda (malERA), which provides a useful starting point to guide needed R&D investment. “Promising new diagnostics, medications, insecticides and vector control approaches are being developed, alongside passive immunization therapies such as monoclonal antibodies. The world’s first malaria vaccine, RTS,S/AS01, has been deployed in Ghana and Malawi, with plans for rollout in Kenya," the report said.
WHO along with its partners are already establishing some new strategic approaches to tackling malaria. Last November, for example, WHO and the RBM Partnership to End Malaria launched the “High burden to high impact" approach. This aims to jumpstart progress against malaria by targeting attention to the 11 countries with 70% of the world’s malaria burden – 10 African countries and India.
More than 90% of the world’s 400,000 annual malaria deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa.