Malaria Eradication: Has the Time Come at Last?

April Harding | 29 Oct 2007
Center for Global Development

Readers of The Economist were treated to a tantalizing prospect this past week: the possibility of eradicating malaria in the developing world (also featured in The Lancet). The piece presents this hope based on the prospect of developing a malaria vaccine, and the recent proposal of the biggest health program funder in the world - Bill Gates.

If a vaccine were indeed close to development, such a prospect would seem feasible. But a generally agreed-upon timeline, given by the global Malaria Vaccine Technology Roadmap, has the goal of developing a vaccine by 2025. The eradication initiatives are expected to precede this development. What would be involved: massive roll out of access to effective treatment; scaling up of indoor-residual spraying and substantially increasing use of insecticide treated nets (ITNs) in endemic areas.

Steven Phillips is the Chief Medical Officer for Exxon Mobil, a company whose African operations necessitate significant efforts to contain malaria to protect their workforce. The Economist article has him expressing profound skepticism about the possibility of eradication, calling it "technically impossible." He notes for example that vaccines can't do much good if they don't reach endemic villages. Similarly, ITNs that are not distributed or not used don't work, and neither does DDT that is not sprayed on household walls. ACTs likewise don't work - unless used. The problems with getting these interventions delivered are legion, and were a major contributor to the poor performance of the Roll Back Malaria (RBM) initiative, as described in an external evaluation.

The Economist points to a recent UNICEF report as containing evidence that the biggest problem - that of getting the interventions delivered - has been overcome (see figure 1 below and page 2 of the UNICEF report). Indeed, the words in the report are encouraging. But a closer read, focusing on the data presented, is far more sobering. Despite all the attention and added resources since RBM was launched nine years ago, the burden of malaria has increased. And while some countries, as seen in the graph below, have achieved significant increases coverage of bed nets, very few are on target to meet the program targets. Eradication would require much higher rates of coverage of all three key interventions: ACTs, ITNs, and IRS - a feat not yet achieved nation-wide in a single endemic country...

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