Malaria is one of the scourges of third world travelers, not to mention the people that live in areas prone to the disease. For centuries Malaria has caused devastation among populations, especially in Africa which accounts for up to 90% of Malaria cases. Although the latest news about the disease coming out of the scientific and medical communities all seems to be pretty positive, the disease has undergone a major resurgence since the attempted eradication programs of the 50s and 60s.
Malaria is a disease that is transmitted by a parasite that is carried between humans by mosquitos. Up to 500 million people are infected with the disease every year, leading to the deaths of 1 million and contributing to the deaths of millions more. Predictably, the scale of the carnage has a massive economic impact as well, seemingly in places that can scarcely afford it. According to The Economist, Malaria accounts for 40% of public health spending in Sub-Saharan Africa and strips their economies of $12 billion in lost production per year, not to mention the impact of the disease in places such as Cambodia and Myanmar.
The good news is that Malaria can be prevented and treated (as any experienced traveler probably already knows). The problem so far has been preventing and treating Malaria on the massive scale required to have an impact on its overall effects.
Last year’s major story to do with Malaria was the beginning of mass production of “Olyset” mosquito nets infused with insecticide by Japanese company, Sumitomo Chemical. The nets can be produced for as little as $5 per piece and, according to the WHO, potentially reduce fatalities from Malaria by as much as 20%. (They are also a wise addition to your travel kit as they weigh next to nothing and take up very little room – if you can find them). The nets have been the basis of many private and public campaigns to limit the effects of Malaria in developing countries. The low and tangible cost of the nets also makes them an easily promoted remedy for organisations seeking charitable donations.
Last week the Economist ran a story on the development of a new climate prediction technique that could forewarn of Malaria outbreaks by a period of up to five months. Current computer early warning systems can only give predictions of an outbreak within about a month of the expected date – a timespan that doesn’t leave health organisations a lot of time to organise a response. The distribution of the Olyset nets could be far better coordinated with this new information system not to mention other outbreak prevention strategies.
So with the scientific communities being on the offensive against the disease, why has it continued its resurgence?
According to the US Center for Disease Control, the reemergence of the disease can be attributed to several factors, a few of which would seem to be preventable.
One factor that stands out is the prevalence of armed conflict in places affected by Malaria which sees populations move to succeptable areas with limited resources to offset the disease. The obvious problems associated with Malaria prevention in a conflict zone coupled with the more immediate concerns of feeding and sheltering refugees mean the issues associated with the disease are usually overlooked at the time. Other than to halt the fighting, which seems an impossiblity given the UN and the West’s reticence to become involved in African squabbles, there doesn’t seem to be an obvious solution to that problem.
The other preventable factor in their assessment is the abysmal socio-economic conditions of the areas in which the spread of Malaria is a major concern. The fact that Sub-Saharan economies are simply not equipped to deal with the major costs of offsetting a prevantable epidemic would seem to be an absolute tragedy. Once again, Irish rock stars aside, this causative factor doesn’t seem set for a major reversal unless the economic fortunes of Africa take a miraculous turn.
Despite the advances made by the scientific community, the factors that would enable them to mount a serious attempt to wipe out Malaria simply don’t exist at the moment. At best we can hope that continued efforts will keep the disease within a manageable scope and continue to reduce its devastating impact, but until several of the causative factors that aren’t currently on the radar of the international community can be addressed, Malaria will be something the world will have to learn to live with.