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Unicef Takes on Malaria as Top Priority in Kids' Health

BYLINE: WOZA Internet (Johannesburg)
DATELINE: June 21, 2000
BYLINE: By Marjolein Harvey

Johannesburg - Fighting malaria is among Unicef's top priorities. This formidable tropical parasitic disease kills at least one million people annually - three quarters of them children, according to the Unicef website .

One of the leading causes of death among children under five, malaria kills a child every 30 seconds, or 3,000 children a day worldwide.

Also at high risk are pregnant women, non-immune travellers, refugees, displaced persons, and workers entering endemic areas.

If promptly diagnosed and adequately treated, however, malaria is curable.

This disease, which is spread through Anopheline mosquito bites, is a serious public health problem affecting between 300-500 million people a year in some 100 countries inhabited by 40% of the world's population.

Ninety per cent of the global malaria cases occur in sub-Saharan Africa.

Two-thirds of the remaining cases occur in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe.

Increasing numbers of imported cases are occurring in Europe and North America.

Malaria thrives in warm, humid climates, particularly where health care systems are weak.

Malaria victims occupy as many as one out of ten hospital beds worldwide.

The disease exacts an enormous toll, not only in lives, but in medical costs, days of labour lost, and economic output, and it undermines the growth and development of millions of children.

According to Unicef, malaria contributes to severe anaemia in children, is a leading cause of low birth weight among infants, is a most common cause of school absenteeism, causes severe anaemia, miscarriages, and still births among pregnant women and contributes to high rates of maternal deaths.

It also costs countries in Africa between one to five per cent of their gross domestic product and about 10% of their expenditures on health, and is a major impediment to economic development.

Economic loss from malaria was estimated to be R12 billion in 1997 in Africa south of the Sahara.

Thousands of children's lives can be saved by simply using mosquito nets, but giving these nets to people in malaria-prone areas is not always easy.

A senior Unicef spokesperson in New York told SABC radio on Tuesday that the problem of malaria is an African problem: almost two million children die every year on the continent from the disease.

"Unicef and the World Health Organisation are working together with governments to make sure we have strategies that can control malaria," he says.

The first priority in the fight against malaria for children is making sure that children who have fever are taken as early as possible for treatment at the nearest hospital.

Secondly, providing mosquito nets empowers families in poorer communities to do something to protect pregnant women and especially children from contracting malaria, he told SABC radio. The nets can prevent malaria deaths by as much as 25%, according to the Unicef spokesperson.

But nets are expensive for the average poor family in rural Africa - they average between about R30 and R45, even costing up to R90 - and families need three or four on average.

"One of the things we have been asking governments is to ensure that nets are made available to families, and this is done by reducing taxation and tariffs on mosquito nets and treat them like an essential health item. This can reduce the price of the nets to about R12 to R18," he says.

DDT has a role to play in the control of malaria, but Unicef and its partners are looking at less toxic insecticides, he says. In areas where malaria is seasonal, spraying with DDT can save lives, he told SABC radio, adding that there are still concerns about complications for the environment. Past progress reversed the number of malaria cases in North America, southern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and in some areas of Asia and South America decreased from 350 million in 1955 to 10 million in 1969 mostly attributed to spraying DDT inside homes and on mosquito breeding sites. But the DDT insecticide is now legally banned in many countries because of its harmful effects on the environment. The problem was complicated by malaria strains that were resistant to chloroquine, the most inexpensive and widely used antimalarial drug and some strains of malaria have also developed a resistance to other antimalarial drugs. Chloroquine resistance is now reported from all regions of the world with malaria. Also contributing to the resurgence of malaria are: the displacement of populations, global warming, roads being built, commercial tree cropping and deforestation, creation of dams, and the opening up of new mining areas.

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