SEATTLE Nearly a third of all countries affected by malaria are on course to eliminate the mosquito-borne disease over the next 10 years, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Monday.
In a progress report published by the Roll Back Malaria (RBM) partnership at the start of an international Malaria Forum conference in Seattle, the United Nations health body said "remarkable progress" had been made.
Up to a third of the 108 countries and territories across the world where malaria is endemic are moving toward being able to wipe out the disease within their borders, it said.
"Better diagnostic testing and surveillance has provided a clearer picture of where we are on the ground -- and has shown that there are countries eliminating malaria in all endemic regions of the world," Robert Newman, director of the WHO's Global Malaria Program, told the conference.
"We know that we can save lives with today's tools."
He said the WHO continually monitors progress to ensure countries are supported in their efforts to be malaria-free.
Almost half the world's population -- or 3.3 billion people -- are at risk of malaria and the parasitic disease killed 781,000 people in 2009, according to the latest data. Most of its victims are in Africa.
Malaria elimination -- halting the disease's transmission and reducing infections to zero within a defined area -- was first attempted on a large scale during the Global Malaria Eradication Program from 1955 to 1972.
During that time, 20 countries were certified by WHO as malaria-free. But that number dropped to just four countries during the following 30 years when efforts to control the spread of the disease lapsed. "The world sort of gave up on malaria, and we lost ground," said Newman.
Monday's report said seven countries had recently eliminated malaria and were working to prevent re-introduction, another 10 countries were monitoring transmission to get down to zero malaria cases, and a further nine were "preparing to move toward nationwide elimination of malaria."
"The extraordinary commitment, the ... financing, and the coordination of efforts to realize malaria targets over the last ten years have resulted in a situation today where we could see 10 more countries reaching a malaria-free status in a relatively short time," said Awa Marie Coll-Seck, RBM's executive director.
"This will save many many more lives."
RBM said in a report in September that a rapid scale-up of a range of malaria control measures -- such as insecticide-treated mosquito nets, indoor spraying, faster and more accurate diagnosis and access to anti-malaria drugs -- has saved an estimated 1.1 million lives in Africa over the past 10 years.
International funding for the fight against malaria has also risen substantially in recent years, reaching about $1.5 billion in 2010, up from $100 million in 2003.
David Brandling-Bennett, deputy director for malaria at the Gates Foundation, which was hosting the Seattle conference, said it was vital for global health authorities, donors and national governments not to take their eye off the ball.
"The reality is that malaria does fight back ... and we don't want to lose the momentum from these gains," he said.
Newman said that with all the highly effective tools currently available, "no one should die of malaria." He urged international donors and national governments to push harder to ensure all those who needed them had access to them.
Only then, he said, would the "global goal of eradicating this ancient scourge" become a reality.
The Malaria Forum is hosted and funded by the Gates Foundation, a $34 billion fund run by the billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates. The foundation is devoted largely to health projects in poor countries.
In 2007, Gates and his wife Melinda urged the international community to fight for the global eradication of malaria, saying that to aspire to anything less would be "timid."
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)