Stronger than a mosquito bite: How to win the fight against Malaria

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Valentina Barbagallo [ONE]

On World Malaria Day, it is important to realise that in spite of progress, for half of the world population, every day is still malaria day, writes Valentina Barbagallo.

Valentina Barbagallo is Policy and Advocacy officer of ONE, the campaigning and advocacy organization co-founded by Bono, the frontman of U2.

Since 2007, when the World Health Organization first established the 25thof April as World Malaria Day, people from across the globe have paused each year to learn about the disease and reflect on the progress made in efforts to control it. The world has made dramatic progress in the eight years since, with annual malaria deaths down by more than 170,000 and coverage of protective bednets way up. However, for half of the world population, every day is still malaria day, with 3.2 billion people at risk of being infected, and nearly 200 million cases last year. The disease claims its victims among the most vulnerable groups in societies, in particular children under five years of age and pregnant women, as their immune system is less able to fight the infection. The year ahead represents an incredible chance to reverse this situation and deliver zero malaria deaths by 2030.

This year is in fact of pivotal importance for international development, as it will offer many opportunities for world leaders to chart a bold path towards the eradication of extreme poverty and fight preventable diseases, including malaria. With the adoption of the new set of Sustainable Development Goals in September, leaders will have the possibility to agree on a framework that could make the world a healthier, safer and fairer place in the next 15 years. In order to do that, increased and better targeted investments in health care systems are urgently needed, especially if we want to preserve the improvements achieved so far. And the next replenishment of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, likely to come in mid-2016, will offer European donors the chance to make a down-payment on the health SDG and fight malaria with renewed momentum.

Since its inception in 2002, the Global Fund has committed more than €7.4 billion in grant funding to countries to fight malaria, making it an indispensable leader in global malaria financing. Those resources have supported the distribution of 450 million insecticide-treated nets to protect families against malaria, along with other treatment and prevention efforts. These grants have contributed to some of the major gains the world has made against malaria, particularly in low and lower-middle income countries. However, even as the number of new cases and deaths decreases, progress in the fight against this tropical disease remains fragile. Malaria is not only a global health issue, but also an economical one. It costs sub-Saharan Africa millions in economic productivity, foreign investment, tourism and trade. Economists believe it may slow economic growth in the hardest-hit sub Saharan African countries by up to 1.3% per year. Malaria also puts a serious strain on public health systems. In heavily affected sub-Saharan African countries, malaria accounts for as much as 40% of public health spending. Complicating matters further, pockets of resistance to artemesinin (the active ingredient in the most effective malaria treatments available today) are emerging in parts of South East Asia and risk setting back the prospect for future gains. We cannot be complacent.

To address these issues, not only do we need a strong political commitment to tackle malaria and its deadly consequences, but also strong financial commitments that can support an effective and sustainable action against the disease. As the world’s biggest donor of development aid, it is imperative that the EU and its Member States seize the opportunity that 2015 offers. One of the key moments for change will be the Financing for Development Conference, which will take place in Addis Ababa in July, and where the EU has the chance to really champion social sector spending, particularly for the world’s poorest. In the framework of an overall recommitment to the longstanding promise of spending 0.7% of their collective Gross National Income (GNI) on Official Development Assistance (ODA), the EU should also adopt a new and bold target of delivering half of its collective aid to the Least Developed Countries. These countries have the least access to other sources of financing, and are still highly dependent on ODA to strengthen their health systems, amongst other sectors. Considering that about 80 percent of malaria cases and 90 percent of deaths are occurring in Africa, such commitment would represent a crucial step to address the disease. Demonstrating political will and focus on diseases like malaria will be strategic in the medium-term as well, building support ahead of next year’s Global Fund replenishment conference. This will be another opportunity for international donors, including the EU, to increase resources directed towards the goal of achieving zero malaria deaths by 2030.

By increasing resources to build more efficient and resilient health care systems as well as measures specifically tailored for malaria, we can achieve real progress against this entirely preventable and treatable disease. If world leaders take the right decisions in the months ahead, in the near future a mosquito bite will no longer be a potential death sentence, and every 25th of April we will be able to celebrate the success of a world without malaria deaths.

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