#WorldMalariaDay2022: Medical Innovations are Revitalizing the Pace of Progress against Malaria in a Race to Save the Most Vulnerable

April 25, 2022

On #WorldMalariaDay2022, the theme “Harness innovation to reduce the malaria disease burden and save lives” reintroduces innovation, and new research and development, as crucial factors in eliminating malaria while at the same time avoiding practices that encourage drug resistance.


Anita Roddick, the founder of The Body Shop, a well-known company, once famously said, “If you think you're too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room.” She was not talking about malaria here, but easily could have been. Malaria is a parasitic disease that is transmitted by infected mosquitoes. The non-specific nature of its symptoms, such as fever, body aches, nausea, and diarrhea, make accurate clinical diagnosis challenging, especially in poor areas. According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) World Malaria Report 2021, in 2020, there were 241 million malaria cases and 627,000 malaria deaths worldwide.

Transmission occurs in the tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. Africa continues to carry a disproportionately high share of the global malaria burden. In 2020, Africa recorded 95% of all malaria cases and 96% of deaths, with children under five years of age accounting for about 80% of all malaria victims in the region. Even though global progress in the reduction of cases has recently plateaued, innovative schemes and investments in new treatments have prevented an estimated 1.7 billion malaria cases and saved 10 million lives since the turn of the new millennium.

Medical innovation does not have the luxury of rest

In October 2015, the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to Chinese researcher Tu Youyou for her discovery of the compound artemisinin in 1971, as part of a Chinese government-funded project. Following WHO endorsement, artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs) became the first-line antimalarial treatment of choice and are largely credited with cutting worldwide malaria deaths in half and being a key component in saving millions of lives since 2001.

In 2004, Nobel Laureate economist Kenneth Arrow proposed an innovative, market-shaping strategy to increase substantially the accessibility and affordability of ACTs in poor countries. In 2009, The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria implemented this strategy with the collaboration of the international malaria community, including the private sector. The initiative is known as the Affordable Medicines Facility-Malaria (AMFm) in Sub-Saharan Africa and Cambodia. In addition to lowering the price of ACTs, this innovative subsidy program supported ACTs in gaining market share from otherwise cheaper but less effective antimalarial treatments (e.g. Chloroquine and sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine (SP)).

The latest round of medical innovation in the fight against malaria occurred on October 2021 when WHO endorsed the groundbreaking success of the RTS,S vaccine, developed by GlaxoSmithKline. RTS,S is not only the first effective malaria vaccine, it is also the first vaccine for any parasitic disease. WIPO Director General Daren Tang last year noted this scientific advancement.

Despite progress in malaria prevention, treating high-risk malaria patients has become increasingly challenging because the disease is showing signs of evolving resistance to ACTs, currently the most effective treatment.

When lives and livelihoods are on the line, medical innovation does not have the luxury of rest, especially when the most affected are children in developing countries. No single tool or innovation alone will solve the problem. A collective approach is needed, including prevention (insecticide-treated nets, indoor residual spraying, and vector control), accurate and timely diagnosis, and availability of first-line treatments for severe malaria. As the international malaria community commemorates #WorldMalariaDay2022 medical innovation will continue to look for ways to win the race and save lives.

(Photo: WIPO)

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