THE BLOG

Why Now Is the Moment to Step Up the Fight Against Malaria

21/12/2015 21:46 GMT | Updated 21/12/2016 10:12 GMT

The World Health Organization's annual malaria report - published earlier this month - makes for uplifting reading. Progress made against malaria over the last 15 years is truly astonishing. Since 2000, deaths from malaria have fallen by 60%.

The catalyst for this was the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which helped galvanise global efforts and resources to defeat malaria. Through scaling up diagnostic testing, improving coverage of insecticide-treated bed nets, and widening access to medicines, huge inroads have been made against this mosquito-borne disease. According to the WHO report, in sub-Saharan Africa, more than half of the population is now sleeping under bed nets, compared to just 2% 15 years ago.

While it's right that we laud these achievements, there is still so much more to be done. As the MDGs morphed into the new Global Goals for Sustainable Development, 2015 marked a turning point for malaria. At the same time as recognising significant progress against the disease, the WHO set out an ambitious target to cut malaria cases and deaths by 90% by 2030. That's an incredible goal. But getting there will not be easy. Now, more than ever, we need to pull together and step up the fight against malaria. Doing so could help unlock both human and economic potential.

From a personal perspective, I understand how important it is that we don't take our foot off the pedal. As a child in Kenya, I suffered from malaria at least once a year. It's a horrible disease that can leave you feeling sick as dog for four to five days, with a profoundly painful headache, weakness and high temperature. I was lucky to survive. Many children were not. In later years, working as a doctor in my home country, I saw too many children needlessly die from malaria. And it's not just the human toll; it has been estimated that malaria costs Africa $12 billion in lost productivity every year. This is not a fight we can afford to lose.

But the next chapter in defeating malaria will arguably be much more challenging than the story so far. Despite our best efforts, malaria still claims more than 400,000 lives each year. Every two minutes, a child loses their life to this disease. There are a number of reasons why this is the case. Loosening malaria's grip in areas where the burden of disease remains stubbornly high can be difficult. Health systems remain fragile in some of the worst affected communities, meaning that not everyone is getting access to the prevention, diagnosis and treatment they need. What's more, the clever malaria parasite is evolving to resist and evade control efforts.

We cannot afford to be complacent in the face of malaria. If we let our guard down, if malaria control programmes slip, the disease can simply roar back at the next rainy season. Maintaining and building on progress already made against malaria requires continued determination, investment and innovation - be that in new medicines, vaccines or other preventative tools. It will also mean strengthening health systems. That could come in the form of more frontline health workers, improving data gathering and creating demand for diagnostic tests.

The scale of this challenge demands teamwork. Already, we've seen great partnerships created in the face of malaria. Now, there's another one taking shape. Comic Relief and GSK have formed a five-year partnership to help fight malaria and strengthen health systems in five countries worst affected by the disease across sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

Both organisations have a history in fighting malaria. GSK is driving innovation into medicines and vaccines - on a non-profit basis - as well as supporting community prevention and education. Comic Relief has used its annual national fundraising campaigns as a platform to raise awareness of the devastating impact of malaria and made grants to organisations on the ground who are fighting malaria and improving health.

A new £22m fund will help build on those efforts. Through it, Comic Relief will manage and make grants to organisations tackling malaria on the frontline - helping ensure people can access prevention, diagnosis and treatment, at the right time, in the right place. This will all be guided by a study from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, which is scoping out how the partnership can best complement and enhance access to healthcare provision and current malaria interventions.

Working together in partnership like this is integral to fighting malaria. By focusing our respective efforts and expertise on the disease, through being thoughtful and targeted in how and where we make our investments, we can make a greater impact. The benefits of defeating malaria could be profound. It would give children a chance to thrive; communities and economies a chance to prosper; and health workers a chance to focus their energies on other health challenges. So together, let's build on the great progress already made and help make malaria history.