Increasing numbers of people are being infected with malaria, despite having better access to mosquito nets and medication, the World Health Organization (WHO) said, with climate change cited as a leading cause.
In 2022, there were an estimated 249 million malaria cases globally, which is 16 million more than the pre-pandemic level of 233 million in 2019.
Climate change is considered one of the biggest contributing factors to high malaria numbers, WHO said, with changes in temperature, humidity and rainfall influencing the behaviour and survival of the malaria-carrying Anopheles mosquito.
“The changing climate poses a substantial risk to progress against malaria, particularly in vulnerable regions," Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said in a press release.
The indirect impacts of climate change are also having an effect on malaria trends. For example, people who have no immunity to the disease may be displaced because of climate-induced factors, and may then be forced to move to areas where malaria is more prevalent.
“To forge ahead toward a malaria-free future, we need a concerted effort to tackle these diverse threats that fosters innovation, resource mobilization and collaborative strategies,” Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa said.
The impact of Covid-19 on malaria
The Covid-19 pandemic "significantly disrupted" malaria services, WHO said, prompting a surge in cases and death rates.
There were an additional five million malaria cases in 2022 compared to the previous year. Pakistan saw the largest increase, with 2.6 million cases in 2022, up from 500,000 in 2021. Ethiopia, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea and Uganda also experienced a significant increase in cases during the pandemic.
WHO also anticipates that Covid-19 efforts will be prioritised going into 2024, and alongside wider geopolitical tensions, that may mean that resources for malaria prevention and treatment could go elsewhere.
Some countries actually saw a fall in the number of malaria cases during the Covid-19 pandemic due to travel restrictions limiting transmission.
Progress is being made
WHO did also highlight progress that was being made in developing the malaria vaccine, RTS,S/AS01, in three African countries.
Research has shown a "substantial reduction" in severe malaria and a 13% drop in early childhood deaths from all causes in the areas where the vaccine was administered.
In October 2023, WHO recommended a second safe, cheaper and more effective malaria vaccine, R21/Matrix-M. The availability of two malaria vaccines is expected to increase supply and make wide-scale deployment across Africa more possible.
WHO is working towards the goal of reducing malaria cases and mortality rates by at least 75% by 2025, and by 90% by 2030, compared to the 2015 baseline.
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