Deadlier disease

Malaria is a far deadlier disease than it was thought to be. According to a study published in Lancet, malaria kills 1.2 million people worldwide annually, twice as high as previously estimated. The gap is far larger in the case of India, where it has been found that 46,800 people died due to malaria in 2010, almost 46 times more than the 1,023 malaria deaths estimated by the government that year.

The study, which was conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, used newly available data and modeling tools. It has attributed the underestimation of the number of malaria deaths to the failure of previous studies to recognise and count the disease’s deadly toll among older children and adults. It was believed hitherto that people exposed to malaria as children develop immunity and rarely die from malaria as adults. The study indicates that this is not necessarily so. In fact, over 40 per cent of the total malaria deaths has been found to be among children over the age of 5 years and adults. Global strategies to tackle malaria will need to change. All people in malaria prone areas, not just children under-5, will need to be protected.

The study has thrown new light on our understanding of malaria. While the new numbers it has thrown up are mind boggling and worrying, there are rays of hope too. The study reveals that the number of malaria deaths rose from 995,000 in 1980 to a peak of 1.82 million in 2004, before falling to 1.24 million in 2010. It is believed that at the current rate of decline of malaria deaths, it will be at least a decade before the world can free itself from this deadly disease. While this is a long way off, there is no reason for despair. The declining trend indicates that prevention measures and treatment for malaria are beginning to have impact.

Thickly forested parts of Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh, which are in the grip of armed conflict, are the epicentres of malaria in India. Programmes to fight malaria have been impeded by the conflict. It should be easier to fight it in our cities, where it is poor sanitation and drainage that facilitate breeding of mosquitoes. But little is being done to improve the sewage system here. Eradication of malaria is possible. What it needs is political will.

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