Malaria remains a devastating “killer disease.” The World Health Organization* reveals frightening statistics about this parasitic infection.
Malaria: A Continuing Threat
By Peter N. Landless
Malaria remains a devastating “killer disease.” The World Health Organization* reveals frightening statistics about this parasitic infection. In 2013 there were approximately 584,000 malaria deaths worldwide. Of these, 90 percent were in Africa, and 78 percent were children under 5.
In real numbers, malaria remains responsible for the deaths of approximately 430,000 children in Africa every year. This situation is aggravated by the fact that less than 50 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa has access to an insecticide-treated mosquito net. As inadequate as this number is, it has dramatically increased over the past 15 years, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church—through its Health Ministries Department—had the privilege of being part of the advocacy group that worked toward churches being a key component in the distribution of permethrin-treated mosquito nets. We have much more work to do, however, as we labor for the betterment of health for all!
Exciting advances, though, are taking place. Treated nets and mosquito insecticides have helped to bring about an estimated drop in mortality of 47 percent between 2000 and 2013. Another promising breakthrough is the development of a malaria vaccine. This is being pioneered by, among others, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), and may be obtainable for general use by October 2015, once trial results demonstrating unequivocal safety and benefits are available. Results of tests done to date show that the vaccine was effective in more than one third of children when administered between 5 and 17 months of age. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has funded its development. The vaccine has been tested, starting in 2009, on more than 16,000 children in seven sub-Saharan African countries, with very promising results. The efficacy of the vaccine wears off over time, and booster shots will be needed.
The development of artemisinin-resistant Plasmodium falciparum, however, especially in Cambodia, is worrying. Artemisinin is the newest and generally very effective antimalarial medication and is derived from a bush indigenous to China. It has been particularly helpful, but one of the most dangerous forms of malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, has become resistant to this medication in Cambodia. This same strain of malaria has developed resistance to quinine in other parts of the world, including parts of Africa. Resistance to yet another drug is very concerning since this form of malaria is commonly lethal.
This highlights two important points: There needs to be (1) persistent and intentional efforts to eliminate the vector (carrier): mosquitos; and (2) global distribution of insecticide-treated nets (ITN) wherever the threat of malaria exists must increase. Health education is also key. Laundering curtains and nets with permethrin can further decrease malaria cases. Equipped with the correct information, church congregations can be very positive influences in the areas they serve, thus helping the dream to become a reality: “Every church a community health center, and every member a medical missionary (health promoter).”
It is important to take malaria prophylaxis (tablets that help prevent malaria, and hopefully soon a vaccine) as advised by your physician/clinic. Be aware of potential side effects. We no longer recommend mefloquine (Lariam) because of its detrimental effects. Other effective agents have far fewer worrisome consequences.
Universal precautions are always helpful. Use mosquito nets and insect repellent in malaria areas. Wear long sleeves and trousers (leg coverings) when outdoors at dawn and dusk. Eradicate stagnant pools where mosquitoes love to breed.
Many opportunities exist to help make a difference in our communities. Malaria awareness and control is one. As we embrace comprehensive health ministry and share the healing ministry of Jesus, “let us not become weary in doing good” (Gal. 6:9, NIV).
Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, is director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.