Asia has made “extraordinary” progress towards eliminating malaria, but is still in danger of relapse if funds dry up, one of the most senior officials leading the fight against the mosquito-borne disease, has warned.
“While we recognise that global progress on malaria has pretty much stalled, Asia-Pacific is the only region where we’ve made significant progress,” Dr Ben Rolfe, the CEO of the Asia Pacific Leaders Malaria Alliance (APLMA) told the Telegraph in an interview ahead of World Malaria Day on April 25.
The APLMA, an affiliation of Asia and Pacific heads of government, is charging towards its goal of eliminating malaria in the region by 2030 thanks to rapid action by countries including China, Malaysia and India, he revealed.
Although deaths from the disease have dropped by roughly 48 per cent since 2000, malaria still killed 435,000 people in 2017. And according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the number of reported cases rose by 3 million to a total of 219 million globally in the same year.
However, Dr Rolfe stressed that the momentum had to be maintained, particularly to overcome the frightening threat of multi-drug resistant malaria emerging from Cambodia and spreading across the Mekong region, particularly through Burma, Laos and Vietnam.
“[It’s] really focused public attention on malaria in this region because we only have one front-line drug for malaria – artemisinin - and if you lose that front-line drug the global consequences would be catastrophic,” he said.
“Protecting that drug, which means rapidly eliminating malaria in the Mekong region and ensuring we have high quality drugs, good coverage of interventions and trying to get it done as quickly as we can has become a real global cause,” he said.
Preventing the drug-resistant strain from spreading to Africa where, according to WHO statistics, 93 per cent of malaria deaths occurred in 2017, has been enabled by an injection of $350m from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, matched by governments in the Mekong region.
The Global Fund – an international financing organisation headquartered in Geneva – faces a tough replenishment call for $13 billion this October, leaving health workers on tenterhooks.
The UK, European Union and the US are the biggest donors to the fund.
“If we don’t have a successful replenishment for the Global Fund, we will see a global resurgence of malaria, not just in Asia but in Africa,” said Dr Rolfe.
“I’m confident that the political leadership is there. But it’s a challenging environment for fundraising.”
He hopes that the “extraordinary returns” on their investments, will encourage international donors, particularly the US, to keep giving.
Between 2010 and 2017, confirmed cases in Asia Pacific countries plunged by 47 per cent and deaths by 78 per cent.
Domestic funding for malaria in the Asia Pacific region has also increased by 50% since 2012.
In particular, Malaysia had managed to eradicate the disease for the first the time this year, and China, by coordinating 13 of its ministries, has been clear of indigenous cases for two years running “for the first time in human history”, said Dr Rolfe.
China has succeeded by pioneering the “one-three-seven approach” of identifying cases within a day, following up with treatment within three and investigating the reason for the outbreak within seven, he added.
India too, where millions remain at risk of malaria, had pulled out all the stops in putting a national elimination plan into action, resulting in a 27 per cent decrease in cases in 2017 and a further 23 per cent decrease in 2018.
With a disease that does not respect borders, the APLMA has played a vital role in coordinating government responses.
Next week it will draw senior foreign affairs, defence and finance officials from 23 countries to Bangkok, to discuss priorities for seeing the 2030 goal of eliminating malaria through to the “end game.”
A dramatic resurgence of malaria cases in Papua New Guinea provided a chilling warning about the fragility of gains against the disease if governments let their guards down, said Dr Rolfe.
Faced with a political crisis due to cuts in oil and gas prices and increasing demands on the public purse, Papua’s leadership had slashed health funding, leading to a 700 per cent increase last year and one in ten infected in some parts of the country, he explained.
“It’s a real tragedy, completely unnecessary and just shows what can happen when you take your foot off the gas,” he said.
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