If we play our cards right, we can eradicate one of the world’s deadliest diseases within a generation, scientists say.
It’s one of the deadliest diseases in the world, and we’ve been trying to eradicate it for decades. We’ve made lots of progress: More than half the countries on Earth are now malaria-free. The distribution of bednets is estimated to have saved 6.8 million lives. And the number of kids under 5 who died of the disease plummeted from 440,000 in 2010 to 285,000 in 2016.
But that’s still 285,000 kids too many. Scientists now say there’s no reason we can’t eradicate malaria altogether. And there’s no reason we can’t do that within a generation — if we play our cards right.
“For too long, malaria eradication has been a distant dream, but now we have evidence that malaria can and should be eradicated by 2050,” said Richard Feachem, co-chair of the Lancet Commission on malaria eradication, which just published the results of a major new study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“But to achieve this common vision, we simply cannot continue with a business-as-usual approach,” Feachem added. “The world is at a tipping point, and we must instead challenge ourselves with ambitious targets and commit to the bold action needed to meet them.”
The study offers a roadmap for beating malaria, a disease that’s transmitted to humans through the bites of infected mosquitoes, and that can cause problems ranging from fever and chills to severe respiratory problems or death. It recommends focusing on three areas: what it calls the “software” of eradication (think soft skills, like management training), the “hardware” of eradication (think molecular technology for diagnostics), and the financial investment needed to make it all happen.
And it’s crucial to make sure it happens, because malaria isn’t just a health issue, it’s also an equality issue, a social justice issue. This disease is preventable and curable — in fact, Malawi and Ghana recently piloted a new vaccine — but low-income and rural people still die of it because they often lack access to the treatments that could save their lives. The disease is most prevalent in poor countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, and also in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia.
At a time in history when we’re armed with solid science and sufficient resources to deploy it, letting malaria continue to be a death sentence is arguably ethically indefensible. Plus, as the study notes, freeing a country of malaria means freeing it up to use its resources on other things, ultimately boosting its development and economic prosperity.
How to “bend the malaria curve”
If you were to draw a graph showing the incidences of malaria over time, you’d see that the curve is generally careening downward. However, the study authors note that progress sometimes stagnates, and between 2015 and 2017, 55 countries actually reported an increase in cases. Our goal should be to “bend the curve” so that it more quickly and consistently gets all the way down to zero.
So, how do we do that?
The Lancet Commission, which was launched in 2017 by the Global Health Group at the University of California San Francisco, developed a machine-learning model to capture the complex associations between malaria and a bunch of current socioeconomic factors (like urbanization) and environmental factors (like climate change). Using projected global trends, they mapped these factors onto 2050 to see how they might affect the future global landscape of malaria.
For example, as global temperature and precipitation increase, will the prevalence of malaria also increase in certain parts of the world? What will the future look like if, right now, we intervene not at all, a little, or a lot?
The simulation shows us what 2050 will look like if we keep intervening at the same level we were intervening in 2017:
That’s not so great; malaria is still pretty widespread. But look what happens when we enhance our malaria intervention, deploying solutions such as insecticide-treated bednets more than we were doing in 2017. The simulation shows that we can feasibly have very little malaria in Africa by 2050.