Malaria deaths in Gambia drop steeply-study

Michael Kahn | 30 Oct 2008
Providing pregnant women and children with insecticide-treated bed nets has sharply cut malaria deaths in the West African nation of Gambia, according to a study published on Friday.

The findings suggest health officials in other parts of Africa could eliminate the disease as a public health problem in a region where malaria kills a child every 30 seconds, David Conway and colleagues at the Medical Research Council UK reported in the journal Lancet.

"We have seen that it has gone down and stayed down," Conway said. "There is no evidence of an upsurge but we are aware that with an infectious disease you can never know for sure."

The World Health Organization estimates malaria killed 881,000 people and infected 247 million people worldwide in 2006, the latest year for which figures were available. Some malaria experts say those numbers underestimate the problem.

The disease -- caused by a parasite transmitted by mosquitoes -- has become resistant to some drugs and work on a vaccine has been slow. One effective treatment is Novartis AG's Coartem.

A separate study published in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS Pathogens said Dutch researchers have worked out the characteristics of a large number of parasite proteins that may prove useful in developing a vaccine.

In their study, Conway and his team analyzed health records covering nine years from five hospitals and health clinics in the western part of the country to track people who died of or were treated for malaria.

Since 2003 cases of malaria and deaths dropped dramatically after funding was provided for insecticide-treated bed nets from private and public donors, Conway said.

Hospital admissions representing thousands of cases fell by as much as 74 percent in the four years while the number of deaths at the two hospitals with the most complete records went from 29 in 2003 to just one in 2007, Conway said in a telephone interview.

While far fewer children are dying from the disease, he cautioned that officials had not yet eradicated the condition and probably never will.

But the case of Gambia shows that governments and charitable organizations can make a difference attacking the problem with solutions as simple as bed nets, he added.

"The incidence of malaria, whether it is mild or severe, has gone down by a very large relative percentage," he said. "The gains are good but there is still malaria and children are still dying of it." (Reporting by Michael Kahn; Editing by Maggie Fox)