Ebola worries offset malaria gains: WHO

The number of people dying from malaria has almost halved since 2000, although progress in west Africa risks being reversed by the Ebola outbreak, the Geneva-based World Health Organization said on Tuesday.

Ebola worries offset malaria gains: WHO
WHO chief Margaret Chan. Photo: Remy Steinegger/World Economic Forum

The UN agency also warned of continuing gaps in access to mosquito nets and anti-malaria treatments, as well as worrying signs of resistance to insecticides and drugs.
Global mortality rates fell by 47 percent between 2000 and 2013 and by 53 percent in children under the age of five, the WHO said in its annual report on the disease.
In sub-Saharan Africa, where 90 percent of all malaria deaths occur, the mortality rate was down 54 percent —  58 percent in under fives, the equivalent of about 3.9 million children's deaths averted.
"These are truly unprecedented results and phenomenal news in terms of global health," said Pedro Alonso, director of the WHO's global malaria programme.
Despite a 43-percent increase in the population in the region, the number of infections at any one time fell 26 percent between 2000 and 2013.
Meanwhile 13 of the 97 malarial countries reported no cases of the disease last year, including Azerbaijan and Sri Lanka, which recorded their first ever zero result.
Alonso attributed the progress in large part to increasing financial and political commitment, as well as improvements in diagnosing and therefore treating cases.

However, despite a threefold increase in investment since 2005, malaria programmes are still underfunded — $2.7 billion in 2013 against a $5.1 billion international target.

And as a result, major gaps remain.

Access to insecticide-treated bed nets has improved significantly, but 278 million people at risk in sub-Saharan Africa still live in households without one.

The report also said 15 million of the region's 35 million pregnant women receive no preventative treatment.

And 437,000 African children under the age of five still died from the disease in 2013, out of a total of 584,000 deaths across the world.

"We can win the fight against malaria. " said WHO director-general Margaret Chan.

"We have the right tools and our defences are working," Chan said.

"But we still need to get those tools to a lot more people if we are to make these gains sustainable."

Ebola threatens gains

The fragility of the gains is evident in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, where the Ebola outbreak has halted malaria programmes in some areas and put a huge strain on health services.
"The collapse of health systems has affected all core malaria interventions and is threatening to reverse recent gains," Chan warned.
Health workers across the world are increasingly using simple tests to diagnose malaria on the spot. But these have been suspended in Ebola affected areas because of concerns about spreading the virus.

Many people with malaria are also staying away from clinics, and if "they are not getting treated, you can be sure that mortality is going to increase", said Richard Cibulskis, lead author of the malaria report.
A total of 20,000 people died from malaria across the three hardest hit countries in 2013.

More than 6,300 people have died from Ebola in the region in the past year.

Aside from the direct consequences, the resurgence of malaria could also harm the fight against Ebola because the two have similar symptoms, making it difficult to diagnose the deadly virus, experts warn.
Unicef last week launched a campaign to provide anti-malarial drugs to 2.4 million people in Sierra Leone, while global aid agency Doctors Without Borders is conducting a smaller scale effort in Liberia.
Another issue threatening progress is the rise of insecticide resistance, which has been reported in 49 countries since 2010 — 39 of which reported resistance to two or more insecticide classes.
The WHO raised particular concern about the development of resistance to a commonly used drug, artemisinin, in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.
"Emerging drug- and insecticide-resistance continues to pose a major threat, and if left unaddressed, could trigger an upsurge in deaths," Chan said.

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WHO to set up pandemic data hub in Berlin

The World Health Organization announced Wednesday it would set up a global data hub in Berlin to analyse information on emerging pandemic threats, filling the gaps exposed by Covid-19.

WHO to set up pandemic data hub in Berlin
Angela Merkel on May 5th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AFP Pool | John Macdougall

The WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence, which will start operating later this year, is set to analyse data quickly and in detail, in order to predict, prevent, detect, prepare for and respond to risks worldwide.

The hub will try to get ahead of the game, looking for pre-signals that go far beyond current systems that monitor publicly available information for signs of emerging outbreaks.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed gaps in the global systems for pandemic and epidemic intelligence,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told journalists.

“There will be more viruses that will emerge with the potential for sparking epidemics or pandemics.

“Viruses move fast. But data can move even faster. With the right information, countries and communities can stay one step ahead of an emerging risk and save lives.”

READ ALSO: ‘We are still in the third wave’: German Health Minister urges caution in reopening after shutdown

Merging digital, health expertise

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Berlin was a good location for the hub as it already had leading players in the digital and health fields, such as the Robert Koch Institute.

“If that expertise is now supplemented by the WHO Hub, we will create a unique environment for pandemic and health research here in Berlin – an environment from which important action-oriented insights will emerge for governments and leaders around the world,” she said in a video message.

It is hoped that the site will be operational from September. Its budget is still under discussion, while Germany will meet the start-up costs.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn said the world needed the capacity to detect outbreaks with the potential to become health crises “before the threat becomes a sad reality”.

Global systems were currently “insufficiently prepared” to handle the risks posed by outbreaks, mutations of existing pathogens, extensions of diseases to previously unaffected populations, and diseases jumping species from animals to humans, he added.

“There’s a clear need for a stronger global early warning alert and emergency response system with improved public health intelligence,” he said.

“Better data and better analytics are key for better decisions.”

 Looking for pre-signals

“There are signals that may occur before epidemics happen… data that can give us pre-signals,” said WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan. That information could drive early decision-making, he added.

“The Hub will allow us to develop tools for that sort of predictive analytics,” he said.

A joint mission by international and Chinese scientists concluded in March that the SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes Covid-19 disease most likely passed to humans from a bat via an intermediary animal.

The experts’ report suggested the outbreak could have started as far back as September 2019, long before it was first detected in December 2019 in Wuhan.

The WHO only became aware of the new coronavirus on December 31st that year, when its epidemic intelligence service and its China office spotted a media report and a mention by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission of a mysterious cluster of pneumonia cases.

The Covid-19 pandemic has killed at least 3.2 million people and more than 154 million cases have been registered worldwide since then, according to tallies from official sources compiled by AFP.