April 24, 2009 / 12:24 AM / 10 years ago

Goal of eliminating malaria in sight: experts

* Efforts bring goal of eradicating malaria within sight

A refugee woman from Darfur waits for treatment for malaria at the International Medical Corps' health centre hospital at Mile refugee camp, west of Guereda in eastern Chad January 27, 2009. REUTERS/Margaret Aguirre/International Medical Corps/Handout

* Disease still infects 500 million a year, kills 1 million

* Vaccine tests starting shortly

By Jonathan Lynn

GENEVA (Reuters) - Fresh efforts and funding to tackle malaria in recent years have brought the goal of eradicating the deadly disease within sight, health experts said on Friday.

Wiping out malaria worldwide could take decades but many countries where it is endemic are on the brink of eliminating the disease, which infects up to 500 million people a year and kills nearly one million worldwide, they said.

“The vision of achieving elimination in a number of countries is certainly in sight,” said Rifat Atun, strategy director at the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, an international financing institution.

Most malaria victims are children under the age of five and pregnant women. Roughly 90 percent of fatalities are in Africa, where malaria accounts for one in five childhood deaths.

The goal of eradicating malaria, caused by a parasite transmitted in mosquito bites, could take until 2050 or 2060, said Richard Feachem, chairman of the Malaria Elimination Group.

But it is now endemic in only about half the world’s countries after being eliminated from others such as Canada and Finland since 1945, he told a news conference, launching two reports by the group for policymakers and health specialists.

SQUEEZING MALARIA

One report focuses on destroying malaria in countries such as Mexico, South Africa and China on the margins of the tropical areas where it is endemic.

Feachem said the strategy was aggressive control in the heartland to reduce infection and death, elimination country by country from the margins, and research into drugs, vaccines and insecticides.

He said countries could learn from tough rules imposed in Singapore. The tropical city state makes it illegal for construction companies to allow malaria-bearing mosquitoes to breed on building sites and makes individuals responsible for preventing stagnant water gathering in their homes.

“In a country where the legislative and political environment permits it ... legislation can play an important role, requiring householders to do certain things,” he said.

The fight against malaria takes several forms — spraying bednets and homes to deter mosquitoes, using drugs to treat infected people and finding a vaccine to prevent infection.

Such treatments are brought to people in the world’s poorest countries by international organizations and private groups such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, buying drugs from pharmaceutical companies at preferential prices.

Some of these methods are controversial. The pesticide DDT has saved millions of lives from malaria, but concerns that its intensive use in agriculture could spread cancer led to its being banned in many countries for farming.

New medical treatments such as a drug developed by Swiss pharmaceuticals company Novartis using artemisinin, a compound derived from a herb used in Chinese traditional medicine, are driving down deaths and infections, said Chris Hentschel of the Medicines for Malaria Venture.

The treatment, administered to 57 million people last year, saved half a million lives last year. About 50 new drug projects are in the pipeline, Hentschel said.

GlaxoSmithKline is about to start clinical trials of a vaccine in a test involving 16,000 children in seven African countries, which could reach the market within three years, the world’s second-largest drugmaker said.

(For more on the Malaria Elimination Group and its reports go to malariaeliminationgroup.org )

(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit af.reuters.com/ )

Additional reporting by Ben Hirschler in London; Editing by Stephanie Nebehay

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