Countries in the Asia-Pacific region have made substantial progress in tackling malaria over the past decade and the region remains on target to achieve the World Health Assembly Goal of a 75 percent reduction in the number of cases and deaths by the end of 2015. Building on this success, regional leaders have committed to an ambitious new goal to eliminate malaria by 2030. Achieving this goal will transform the lives of millions, but it will only be achieved with continued commitment from regional leaders, sufficient funding and increased awareness.
While sub-Saharan Africa, with 90 percent of all malaria deaths, remains the global epicenter of the disease, malaria continues to pose a serious threat across the Asia-Pacific region, where 2.3 billion people are at high risk of contracting malaria. Rural communities in Cambodia, India, Indonesia and Burma (Myanmar) remain particularly vulnerable and according to the World Health Organization there were an estimated 28 million malaria cases and 45,500 deaths across the Asia-Pacific region in 2012. These disturbingly high figures highlight the continued urgency with which malaria requires tackling.
In the Greater Mekong Sub-region there is a new threat which poses a huge danger to the entire region as a new strain of malaria emerges with resistance to the most common component of malaria drugs – Artemisinin. Artemisinin is derived from a Chinese plant, Qinghaosu, and artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs) have been the most widely used treatment for malaria over the past 15 years. The spread of Artemisinin resistant malaria is a major concern because there are no medical alternatives to ACTs expected to enter the pharmaceutical market for a number of years.
Ben Rolfe, APLMA executive secretary, emphasized the severity of this threat. “Artemisinin resistance is a global public health emergency,” he said. “If we don’t eliminate malaria in the next 15 years we will lose our tools and our medicines armoury. There are very few options and indeed there are very few new types of drugs in the pipeline. We could see artemisinin resistance appearing in India and Africa, similar to the situation we saw with previous drug resistance, such as against chloroquine.”
— APLMA (@APLMA_Malaria) September 14, 2015
Artemisinin-resistant malaria was first detected along the Thailand-Cambodia border and has now spread west to the Thai-Burmese boarder. The spread of Artemisinin resistance across Burma, where 62 percent of the country’s 52 million residents live in malaria endemic areas, is a serious concern. Even more worrying will be the repercussions if it is not eliminated and it spreads into India. Across the subcontinent this new strain would threaten millions of lives. The development of new strains of malaria has prompted health organizations to adjust strategies from containment of the disease to full eradication. Bill Gates, whose foundation has long been committed to fighting Malaria, explained the need for complete eradication of the disease. “Eradication is the only sustainable solution to malaria,” he said. “The alternative would be endless investment in the development of new drugs and insecticides just to stay one step ahead of resistance. The world can’t afford that approach.” In order to successfully eradicate malaria, health organizations, government agencies, medical researchers and health workers have embraced a new weapon – social media. Sharing information about the spread of malaria and encouraging communities at risk areas to adopt effective preventative measures is essential in the fight against malaria. Over the past decade health organizations have increasingly embraced social media to improve communications and interactions with the communities they serve. “Social media is fast becoming an essential part of communications in global health and development. For many people around the world, it is an excellent source of new contacts, information and ideas. There are many people working to defeat malaria and actively communicating through social media,” explained Tim France, external relations team lead at APLMA. The hashtag #DefeatMalaria has been adopted by organizations including Roll Back Malaria, APLMA, Medicines for Malaria Venture, Nothing but Nets, Malaria No More and the United Nations to raise awareness, influence opinions and encourage fund raising. Malaria awareness campaigns using social media aim to enhance the reach and penetration of malaria prevention messages, promote healthier living and increase resilience within at-risk communities, quickly and cost effectively. In recognition of the work done by individual researchers, campaigners and health workers to raise awareness of the battle against malaria, the 2015 Social Media Awards are celebrating the achievements of ‘Malaria Heroes’ and aim to “provide a platform that enables people to recognize and applaud these efforts, and bring the malaria community closer together”. Nominees from the Asia-Pacific region include individuals who have effectively used social media to promote the elimination goals, encourage preventative measures, share research and showcase the excellent work of anti-malaria campaigns. Voting is still open and the organizations involved are encouraging the online community to learn more about the achievements of these dedicated nominees. You can place you vote online now, the winners will be announced on November 13, 2015.
The fight against malaria recently received a huge boost from the United Nations with the malaria elimination goals incorporated in Goal 3, at the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Summit in New York. The Sustainable Development Goals, which have been designed to build on the successes of the Millennium Development Goals, were adopted by 193 UN member nations after an address by Pope Francis, who called the adoption “an important sign of hope.” Expectations are high that global commitment to these goals will improve the living conditions for millions of people with Bill Gates calling the Sustainable Development Goals the most important thing the UN has done this century.
It is hoped that with the battle to eliminate malaria now firmly in the international spotlight this global initiative will receive the necessary commitment from policy-makers, politicians, fundraisers and opinion makers to realise its goal. Over the coming 15 years international health organizations and regional governments will need to intensify their commitment and collaborate on innovative strategies to bring an end to this deadly disease which continues to kill one child every minute.