New study calls for collective action to reduce malaria burden


Three out of ten children below the age of five years in Kenya are infected with malaria, a new study shows. FILE PHOTO | AFP

Three out of ten children below the age of five years in Kenya are infected with malaria, a new study shows.

The survey revealed that children living in large families with low incomes in rural areas are most vulnerable to malaria infection.

The study, Pooled prevalence and risk factors of malaria among children aged 6 to 59 months in 13 sub-Saharan African countries, was conducted by researchers from the University of Gondar, Ethiopia.

The report, which was generated from a sample of 60,541 children below the age of five years from 13 Sub-Saharan African countries, indicated the need to prioritise the utilisation of insecticide-treated bed nets and improved housing in the target areas as a promising means to prevent malaria infection effectively.

Despite being a well-recognised common public health threat, especially to young children, the researchers note that its prevalence and different determinants have been less investigated in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The African region, which carries a disproportionately high share of the global malaria burden, accounted for 95 percent of malaria cases and 96 percent of malaria deaths, with a higher risk among infants, under-five children, pregnant women, and patients with HIV/AIDS.

In 2020, under-five children accounted for about 80 percent of all malaria deaths in the World Health Organization (WHO) African region.

“The persistent and overwhelming burden of deaths among under-five children indicates the urgent need for collective action against malaria. Adequate understanding of the socio-economic, environmental, and cultural factors is important to successfully prevent the burden," read the report, noting that "Besides if the Sustainable Development Goal number three targets are to be met, coordinated action is required toward not only sustaining current rates of decline but also accelerating progress.”

Although malaria is a preventable and curable disease, it remains a major public health problem, particularly in low and middle-income countries.

Every 75 seconds, a child under five dies of malaria. Mainly, children aged between six months and five years are at the highest risk for malaria because during this period they have lost maternal immunity and have not yet developed specific immunity to the infection.

This makes the infection one of the main killers of children.

In Kenya, malaria infection accounts for an estimated 13 percent to 15 percent of outpatient consultations.

About 70 percent of the population is at risk for malaria, including 13 million people in endemic areas and another 19 million in highland epidemic-prone and seasonal transmission areas.

Kenya has four malaria epidemiological zones including endemic, seasonal transmission, epidemic-prone areas of western highlands of Kenya, and low-risk malaria areas, with diversity in risk determined largely by altitude, rainfall patterns, and temperature.

The damning results come at a time the country says it's making significant steps toward ending malaria in the next seven years.

According to the Ministry of Health, Kenya has reduced the prevalence of malaria by over 50 percent in the last decade, and the number of new cases has also significantly decreased.

To further reduce the prevalence, the ministry has launched Kenya Malaria Elimination Implementation Plan (2021-2023), outlining the implementation pathway of malaria elimination activities in the country, with the aims of reducing the burden of malaria in the country and contributing to the global goal of eliminating malaria by 2030.

Kenya's efforts, together with Ghana and Malawi, which resulted in the approval of the malaria vaccine for scale-up were launched in Kenya in March and are also projecting the efforts being implemented in the fight against malaria.

Similarly, the Ministry of Health announced plans to distribute 18.3 million Long Lasting Insecticidal Nets (LLINs) in 28 targeted counties in 2024, aiming to ensure households in malaria-risk areas have one net for every two household members.

“The progress made in Kenya contributes to the global goal of eliminating malaria by 2030. However, ending malaria requires a collective effort, and young people's involvement is critical to the fight against the disease.

The launch of the Kenya Malaria Behaviour Survey 2022, Key Indicators Report, and three malaria documents underpin the country's commitment to a comprehensive approach, addressing not only the medical aspects but also the social and behavioural factors that contribute to the spread of malaria,” The Ministry of Health said in a statement.

Despite making commendable strides in the fight against malaria, the uptake of malaria interventions at the community and household levels remains below the target, and financing needs for malaria prevention, control, and elimination are significant, with a resource gap that currently stands at 50 percent of the resources required to fully implement the Kenya Malaria Strategic Plan.

The Ministry of Health says Kenya needs to urgently address the financial resource gap, with external funding either stagnating or declining in an environment of increasing needs.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends malaria prevention strategies, such as vector control and chemoprophylaxis, which have played a major role in reducing the burden in Sub-Saharan African countries.

However, the global health body decries the complete elimination is still facing hurdles such as pandemics, poverty, biological determinants, climatic and environmental factors, weak healthcare systems, and political unrest.

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