Malaria kills one child every 30 seconds, yet in many parts of the world the disease is hanging on by a thread and could be wiped out by concerted action, researchers said on Tuesday.
The first new global malaria map in 40 years shows nearly half the 2.37 billion people at risk from the mosquito-borne killer live in areas where the chance of actually catching the disease is less than 0.01 percent a year.
Simon Hay of the University of Oxford said he was "very surprised" by the finding, which suggests swathes of Latin America and Asia -- and even parts of Africa -- face a significantly lower risk than previously thought.
"The situation isn't quite as dire for large parts of the planet as people had imagined and, with some concerted effort, we could make very big inroads with the tools that we've got," he said in an interview.
Simply using insecticide-treated bed nets more extensively could be enough to stamp out malaria in regions inhabited by almost 1 billion people.
"If mosquitoes don't get enough chances to bite, the transmission cycle wanes and disappears. In these very low transmission areas, you just need to push the disease a little bit and it should collapse," he said.
Eliminating malaria in marginal areas would provide a major boost to campaigns in sub-Saharan Africa, the region worst hit by the disease, where most of the world's more than 1 million malaria deaths occur each year.
Africa is home to almost all the places in the world where prevalence of Plasmodium falciparum, the most deadly malaria parasite, is above 50 percent. Yet even in Africa, significant areas are more amenable to control than previously thought.
Hay and colleagues worked with the Kenya Medical Research Institute on the Malaria Atlas Project, which was funded by the Wellcome Trust medical charity. Their findings were published in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS Medicine.
They compiled their map over two years by analyzing nationally reported malaria statistics, medical intelligence reports, climate variations, travel advisories and surveys of thousands of communities across 87 countries.
The research paper is available here: http://medicine.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-document&doi=10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.0030473