(HN, April 25, 2011) - The race to eliminate malaria - a preventable disease that claims the lives of almost one-million children every year - by the United Nations target of 2015 faces several challenges - despite tens of millions of dollars earmarked each year towards prevention efforts.
In a conference call hosted by the United Nations Foundation on the eve of World Malaria Day (today), experts agreed that despite well-meaning efforts of several fronts, recalcitrant governments and unpredictable world events could frustrate efforts to reduce malaria deaths to zero by 2015.
On average, malaria claims the life of an African child every 45 seconds. The vast majority of the deaths are among children under five years old.
The main item in the arsenal to fight the disease is insecticide-treat bed nets - which last as long as five years and costs about $10 (including associated costs such as training of health workers). If used properly, the nets protect sleeping children and also kill malaria-bearing mosquitoes.
Malaria eradication proponents claim that more than 75% of people in Sub-Saharan Africa are now covered by bed nets. "We are really making a difference," said sports columnist Rick Reilly.
But the on challenges the road to 2015 are many.
The recent civil war in Ivory Coast, for example, has delayed the distribution of millions of bed nets, said Ray Chambers, a philanthropist and humanitarian who was appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in 2008 as his Special Envoy to mobilize global support for action on the disease. Chambers said the nets are stuck in warehouses in Ivory Coast and if they are stolen or destroyed it could prove difficult to raise replacement funding.
"The greatest risk is that they may disappear between now and the time they get the opportunity to distribute them," said Chambers in reference to the nets in Ivory Coast. In addition, the migration of at least 75,000 people to Liberia also makes protection of people difficult.
Experts also identified Nigeria - Africa's most populous nation with 150 million people - and the Democratic Republic of Congo - as serious trouble spots in the battle against malaria. In Nigeria, nets are not distributed as efficiently as they should and crucial social mobilization efforts need to be scaled up.
Awa Marie Coll-Seck, Executive Director of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, said it is expected that the mobilization of community health workers and community-based organizations will improve the usage rates of bed nets. "In a lot of countries they never used to have nets..it needs explanation and a lot of work. They have a lot of nets coming but they have to catch up on the work to change the behaviour of the people."
Of the 67 million nets earmarked for Nigeria, about 27 million have been paid for but have yet to be distributed "because of different delays within the government process," said Chambers.
Chambers said the DRC has its own set of problems that prevent proper distribution, but that universal distribution is expected as soon as later this year.
He added, however, that an incredible set of partnerships has evolved to fight malaria. Aside from the UN Foundation, the collaboration includes Nothing But Nets, Roll Back Malaria, UNICEF, Rotary International, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Population Services International. "It's because of this incredible partnership that has ever been assembled in a fight against any type of major disease," said Chambers. "We have made the greatest and most rapid progress against any major disease in our lifetime."