Children in Africa Fail to Get Vital Malaria Drugs (Update1)

Simeon Bennett & Dermot Doherty | 18 Sep 2008
Millions of children in Africa, who account for eight in 10 malaria deaths worldwide, don't get the most effective drugs against the disease, even though supply has increased more than eightfold since 2005, the World Health Organization said.

Only 3 percent of African children younger than 5 received life-saving treatments such as Novartis AG's Coartem in 2006, the most recent year for which data are available, according to the WHO's World Malaria Report released today.

Malaria, a mosquito-borne disease for which there's no vaccine, strikes about 247 million people each year, and kills about 881,000, according to the report. While more widespread use of insect-repelling bed nets is helping curb cases and deaths, the report shows most nations are falling short of the WHO's targets for controlling the disease.

"There's still a long way to go,'' Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, told reporters in Geneva today. "We are beginning to see the commitment of countries working with us to overcome those barriers. That's not to say we are out of the woods yet.''

The WHO's previous report, in 2005, said as many as 500 million people were infected each year and more than 1 million died from malaria in 2004. The lower estimates in the new report are based on improved calculation methods for Asia, and the Geneva-based agency said it doesn't know if the number of cases and deaths has actually declined.

Estimates for Africa are based on climate data and field studies because surveillance systems in most of the continent's nations are inadequate, the WHO said.

$12 Billion

Malaria may rob Africa of $12 billion in gross domestic product a year and costs the average household a quarter of its income, according to the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, which is working to reduce infections worldwide by 75 percent by 2015.

Advances against the disease in Africa were helped by increased funding from governments and charities such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which has distributed $833 million to malaria control programs since 2002, according to its Web site. More than $688 million, including government money, was spent in Africa in 2006, though that amount was probably higher because 19 of 45 countries didn't provide data, the WHO said.

Bug-Killing Nets

Bug-killing bed nets and indoor insecticide spraying helped reduce infections and deaths by 50 percent in Eritrea, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe and 22 other nations outside Africa between 2000 and 2007, according to the report. About 40 percent of people at risk in Africa had access to a net last year, compared with 3 percent in 2001.

In Asia, fewer deaths were also reported in Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

Last year the WHO recommended countries switch to artemisinin-based drugs and discourage or ban the use of older treatments such as chloroquine, which malaria has learned to resist in many places. Supplies of so-called artemisinin-based combination therapy increased to 49 million doses in 2006 from 6 million doses in 2005, the United Nations agency said.

The discrepancy between supply and use may be because of delays on orders placed in 2006, the agency said. More children probably received the drugs last year, though data are incomplete, the WHO said.

Novartis has provided more than 195 million doses of Coartem without profit to nations where malaria is endemic since 2001, helping save about 500,000 lives, the Basel, Switzerland-based drugmaker said in a Sept. 15 statement.