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Asia on track with bid to beat malaria

By YANG HAN in Hong Kong | China Daily | Updated: 2021-12-23 09:42
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Countries in Asia, especially those through which the Mekong River passes, are on course to eliminate malaria despite the upheavals of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say.

"Despite the challenges caused by the pandemic, the countries of the Greater Mekong Subregion have shown remarkable resilience in adapting their malaria programs," a spokesperson for the World Health Organization told China Daily in an email.

The subregion, which comprises China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, is one of the few areas in the world that recorded a significant decrease in malaria cases throughout the pandemic, with cases dropping by 39 percent year-on-year between January and September 2021, the spokesperson said.

Malaria is a disease transmitted by mosquito bites or blood infusion. There were an estimated 241 million malaria cases and 627,000 malaria deaths worldwide in 2020, according to the WHO.

Having more than halved the number of annual malaria cases over the past decade, countries in the Asia-Pacific region continue to deliver anti-malaria services during the pandemic, according to a report released on Dec 13 by Asia Pacific Leaders Malaria Alliance, or APLMA, and the Asia Pacific Malaria Elimination Network, or APMEN.

China attained malaria-free status in June, and no indigenous malaria deaths were reported last year in countries including Bhutan, South Korea, and Malaysia. India, one of the countries with the most infections, reported a drop of nearly 45 percent in the number of cases in 2020.

The report attributed the progress in each country to strong commitment from the political leadership, timely adaptation of malaria interventions and the integration of COVID-19 and malaria responses.

In Bhutan, community action groups were trained alongside village health workers to ensure the delivery of both COVID-19 and malaria efforts.

Ambitious goals

Asia-Pacific leaders set the goal of achieving malaria-free status by 2030 at the 9th East Asia Summit in 2014.

APLMA CEO Sarthak Das said the progress in malaria-elimination efforts across the region remains uneven, with Afghanistan, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Papua New Guinea accounting for more than 90 percent of malaria deaths in the region. That means it is important to support the countries with the highest burden of malaria infections, Das said.

Takeshi Kasai, WHO regional director for the Western Pacific, said China's achievement in malaria elimination takes the Western Pacific region one step closer toward the vision of becoming malaria-free.

On June 30, China became the first country in the Western Pacific region to be awarded a malaria-free certification from the WHO in over three decades, after Australia, Singapore and Brunei.

Amita Chebbi, senior director of the APLMA and the APMEN, said China's "1-3-7" surveillance and response strategy has served as a valuable contribution to malaria programs.

The strategy, launched in 2012, refers to a case being reported within one day of diagnosis, with investigations within three days, and in-depth investigation and action carried out within seven days.

"In fact, several countries in the Greater Mekong Subregion adopted and tailored the 1-3-7 strategy and evolved their own system of surveillance suitable for their national contexts such as 2-5-7," Chebbi said.

Of the pandemic's impact, Atul Kumar, India program head of global NGO Malaria No More, said the spread of COVID-19 has resulted in reduced surveillance for malaria around the world.

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