More help needed to fight malaria in Africa

Aid agencies and African states called for more help on Tuesday to fight malaria, a disease that kills more than a million people each year, 90% of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

A dire shortage of money, infrastructure and medical personnel continues to make drugs inaccessible to people who most need them — children and pregnant women, the two groups most vulnerable to the disease.

The World Health Organisation recommends artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs) as the drug of choice to fight malaria. Artemisinin is compound extracted from a herb that is mostly grown in China.

”We have many very good drugs, but populations which need them most are not getting them, and these are the rural poor,” Prudence Hamade, chairperson of Médécins Sans Frontières’s International Malaria Working Group, told an anti-malaria conference in China’s southern Guangzhou city.

Citing a study in Burundi, Hamade said only 9% of children with malaria were treated with ACTs in 2003 and 2004.

”Developed countries need to contribute more to the fight against malaria and because it only affects people in developing world, it’s a neglected disease,” she told Reuters.

One of the world’s oldest diseases, malaria sickens between 300-million and 500-million people a year, killing more than one million of them, or a person every 30 seconds, according to the World Health Organisation.

Number one killer

JB Rwakimari of Uganda’s National Malaria Control Programme calls the disease — which hounds 95% of the country’s 28-million population all year round — a top killer. The remaining 5% of the population live on higher ground, which are affected only seasonally by the deadly pest.

”340 people in Uganda die every day from malaria, 320 of them are children,” he told Reuters on the sidelines of the conference.

”We have not many health facilities. Parents carry their sick children for miles and when they get to a clinic, the child may be close to death,” said the medical doctor, who has suffered at least six episodes of malaria himself.

Because of their immature immune systems, children succumb very easily to malaria and can die within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms if they are not treated.

However, some adults may sometimes become so used to it that they can even continue working with all the immense discomfort associated with the disease.

”But they are weak and it affects the economy,” Rwakimari said of the disease that drains African output by $12-billion yearly, according to the WHO.

What are needed are drugs, bed nets and effective control of mosquitoes using pesticides, all of which do not come cheap.

A bed net costs $5, hardly affordable for the average worker in Burundi, who earns $1 a week, Hamade said. – Reuters

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