This week, the World Health Organization (WHO) released the 2017 World Malaria Report on the state of malaria control and elimination across the globe and, worryingly, emphasized that although more countries have accelerated toward malaria elimination, the global progress to prevent malaria disease and death has stalled after a period of unprecedented positive impact.
The new data find that malaria killed an estimated 445,000 people in 2016, a number essentially unchanged in the last three years. The report also finds that there were an estimated 216 million cases of malaria globally in 2016, a consistent figure for the past five years.
The brunt, by far, of the burden of disease and deaths is shouldered by sub-Saharan Africa (with the exception of India, which had the third highest number of malaria deaths in 2016).
The good news is that malaria control works when there is sufficient funding and political will behind the effort. But current malaria funding levels are insufficient, and while we wait for funding to keep pace with global need, the malaria parasite continues to kill, debilitate and evolve.
Regaining progress made in driving malaria to zero will require more than just maintaining the status quo. Though existing tools may be imperfect, when used at scale they are having an impact. However, in the end, current tools will only take us so far, and new tools are needed, particularly in geographies with the highest malaria burden.
This new report makes clear that to keep up with the parasite, malaria control efforts must make the best use of currently available bednets, diagnostic tests, drugs, and indoor residual spraying. It also makes abundantly clear that investment must be made in research and development of new tools—including drugs, diagnostics and surveillance tools, vaccines, and vector control—that build on the progress already made, and bring new approaches to preventing disease and death and stopping the spread of malaria parasites.
The increasing number of countries that have eliminated malaria, and all of those approaching elimination, provide clear evidence that the parasite can be controlled. At the same time, setbacks in countries with a high disease burden serve as a wake-up call that the global community needs to fund and scale existing control efforts, and invest in the research and development of new tools.