The malaria scare

Nicole Suka gives her 3-year-old son, Yangana, a sip of water as he receives a blood transfusion for his severe case of malaria.

People like me, who thought the world was winning the war against malaria, might have gotten a rude awakening earlier this month following the release of a report by researchers at the University of Washington.

The report, compiled by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), said 1.2 million people died of malaria in 2010 -- almost twice the number found in the most recent comprehensive study of the disease.

IHME said the reason for the disparity is that previous studies had assumed the disease mainly kills children under 5. They had grossly underestimated the deaths of older children and adults from malaria.

“Goodness,” I thought. “If the figures are so out of whack, have all the considerable energies expended in fighting malaria in recent years been in vain?”

Despite this discouraging line of thinking, there were two glimmers of hope. The first was commentary from the World Health Organization, which said the IHME figures could be flawed. Perhaps things were not as bad as they suggested.

Insecticide-treated bed nets are a powerful weapon against deadly malaria.

But the more important glimmer of hope was the IHME’s declaration that, even though its estimate of malaria deaths was significantly higher, its analysis still confirmed a downward trend in malaria deaths in recent years.

Indeed, there has been a massive 32-percent reduction in malaria deaths since a peak of 1.82 million in 2004. The institute says this reflects increased availability of insecticide-treated bed nets and the use of the anti-malarial drug artemisinin.

I was further encouraged when I called Shelby Benson, World Vision’s malaria program manager in Washington, D.C. She told me that the mass distribution of bed nets is a critical part of World Vision's anti-malaria campaign. She sent me some figures, which showed that last year World Vision distributed more than 2.2 million nets in Africa alone. It plans distribution of millions more over the next three years.

“If anything,” she said, commenting on the new report, “it just shows us that we need to continue moving in this direction.”

Hearing this was a relief to me. Yes, we are on the right track. It’s just that the problem is quite possibly far, far bigger than we ever imagined. As the leading medical journal The Lancet points out, now is not the time to be backing off the fight. It urges continued support for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, which has led the way in providing bed nets and artemisinin-based drugs.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I hear echoes of President George W. Bush’s mantra, “stay the course,” which he used whenever things got rocky in Iraq. I won’t presume to judge on whether Bush was right about Iraq. But there can be little doubt that “stay the course” is absolutely the right message when it comes to malaria.

World Vision's End Malaria campaign aims to contribute to a 75-percent reduction in malaria cases, with the end goal of near-zero preventable malaria deaths by 2015. Visit to learn more about the campaign and what you can do.

Want to take a personal stand on this issue with your church? Join with other churches around the nation in hosting a Malaria Sunday. Advocate and take action on behalf of children who are at risk of contracting this deadly disease.

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