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Malaria Day Marked with New Disease Challenge

FILE - Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, prepares a malaria test for 23-year-old Tigrayan refugee Hareg from Mekele, Ethiopia, at the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 17, 2021.

SAN FRANCISCO — As the world marks World Malaria Day, scientists note a new vector is spreading the disease: “Anopheles stephensi” — a mosquito that can breed in areas are not prone to malaria, including cities.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) latest World Malaria Report, there were 247 million cases of the disease in 2021 compared to 245 million cases in 2020. The estimated number of malaria deaths stood at 619,000 in 2021 compared to 625,000 in 2020.

Africa continues to be the most affected with 95% of malaria cases and 96% of deaths. With current interventions, the global anti-malaria community says it has averted two billion malaria cases and 11.7 million deaths between 2000 and 2021.

Today, there’s a new challenge – a new strain caused by the “Anopheles stephensi” mosquito.

The insect is drug resistant – and can thrive in many areas including those that are not malaria endemic, Dorothy Fosah-Achu, the team lead for Tropical and Vector-borne Diseases at the WHO regional office for Africa, said.

But a new vaccine, called RTS,S, should play an important part in controlling the spread of the disease, said the Director of the WHO's department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals, Kate O'Brien.

"The RTS,S vaccine, [which] has been introduced...has completed its clinical trials,” she said. It's been authorized for use in from a regulatory perspective, and it's in roll out in areas where the burden is the highest," O'Brien told VOA.

"The difficulty," she continued, "is that it’s in quite constrained supply, so we are really looking for enhancing that supply which is an ongoing effort to develop a supplier that can produce the vaccine in much greater quantities."

FILE PHOTO: A nurse fills a syringe with malaria vaccine before administering it to an infant at the Lumumba hospital in Kisumu, Kenya, July 1, 2022.
FILE PHOTO: A nurse fills a syringe with malaria vaccine before administering it to an infant at the Lumumba hospital in Kisumu, Kenya, July 1, 2022.

Africa continues to bear the burden of the impact of malaria on children and pregnant women. The WHO report indicates that four African countries — Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, and Niger — accounted for over half of all malaria deaths worldwide.

Diallo Abdourahmane, the WHO’s country representative to Kenya, said in Africa out of 40 million pregnancies, 13.3 million are exposed to the disease during pregnancy which increases the risk of low birth weights.

Eastern and southern Africa have the highest prevalence of exposure to malaria during pregnancy at 41%.

"The target," he said, "is to reach over 134,093 children annually in eight counties around Lake Victoria and the western part of Kenya where malaria is endemic."

Abdourahmane said as of March Kenya distributed the vaccine to another 25 sub-counties in addition to the initial 26, reaching at least 133,195 more children.

The WHO says political commitment, sustainable funding, community engagement, and inclusive health systems are needed for Africa to achieve a malaria-free future.

Ahmeddin Omar, the head of National Malaria Program in Kenya, said the government plans to maximize the surveillance of malaria infections across the country.

"The vision for our country is to have a malaria-free Kenya... through effective partnerships.... and our objective is to reduce malaria incidents by 75 percent of what it was in 2016 by the end of this year," he said.

World Malaria Day is marked annually on April 25, highlighting global needs for the prevention and control of the mosquito-borne disease.