Together, we can beat malaria, but there will be a high price to pay
This week ministers of health from around the region will meet in Kuwait to discuss pressing issues during the 62nd session of the World Health Organisation’s Regional Committee for the Eastern Mediterranean.
The WHO estimates that malaria will kill 584,000 people this year. This preventable disease disproportionately affects the most disenfranchised: children under 5 represent 77 per cent of annual deaths around the world, magnified in Africa where a child dies every minute because of it, and 15 million pregnant women remain without access to measures to protect themselves.
Of the more than 200 million malaria cases estimated each year, over half occur in countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, with 12 member states among the 20 most affected nations worldwide.
But malaria leads to far more than sickness and death. Disabling the education system and disrupting already struggling markets, the socio-economic consequences of malaria are hard to ignore.
In Africa, up to 10 million school days are lost annually with pupils and teachers sick, and it has been estimated that the continent loses $12 billion (Dh44.1bn) in lost productivity every year due to malaria.
While these facts paint a dark picture, a lot has been achieved. In 1998, malaria claimed an estimated one million lives every year. Since then, global investments in malaria initiatives have gone from $130 million to $2.7 billion annually, and more than six million malaria-related deaths have been averted. More than 100 countries are now free from malaria.
This progress would not have been possible without the support of the international aid community and the generous commitment of political and business leaders.
The Gulf Cooperation Council in particular has been a proven ally in the fight against malaria, with Kuwait, the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development, the UAE, the Islamic Development Bank and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia each supporting global malaria efforts through commitments to organisations like the WHO, the RBM Partnership or the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
Now, with the UN’s sustainable development goals, we must build on that progress. Unfortunately, necessary funding is lacking. In the short term, the particular funding gap in Africa alone amounts to $4.7 billion for the next two years. Approximately $100 billion will be needed to reach the 2030 malaria targets, with an additional $10 billion required to fund research and development.
There’s no getting around that this is a high price to pay, but the benefits we stand to receive if we eliminate malaria will far surpass the costs. We have already seen that for every $1 we invest in malaria efforts in Africa, there is an increase in per capita GDP of $6.75.
Malaria has already proven and will continue to be a “best buy” in global public health. It’s a no-brainer – when we invest in malaria elimination, we drive progress. But if we don’t invest now, the consequences could be devastating.
As we set our sights on ambitious targets, we must also prevent the resurgence of malaria where we have previously beaten it.
Since the 1930s, 61 countries reported a resurgence that was linked to a decrease in funding for malaria control and prevention. It is clear that even for countries in the elimination phase – like Saudi Arabia – inaction could cause a drastic resurgence of malaria.
The advances we have made against malaria hang in the balance, dependent on political commitment and sustained financing.
We have been able to count on GCC countries for their support and investment. I encourage many more to take on a more prominent role.
This year, Dr Ahmad Mohamed Ali, the president of the Islamic Development Bank, stated that “battling malaria is a humanitarian and Islamic duty”, and called on fellow Islamic countries to turn their pilgrims into malaria ambassadors.
The international community made a promise to the world through the sustainable development goals.
As ministers from the region gather this week, I hope they keep malaria high on their agenda. We have the tools and knowledge to eliminate malaria and we have the torch to guide our way. Let us all do our part to light this torch and carry it together across the finish line.
Herve Verhoosel is representative at the United Nations in New York of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership
Updated: October 4, 2015 04:00 AM