By Kieran Guilbert
DAKAR, July 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Gambia could become the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to eliminate malaria on its track record of combating the mosquito-borne disease but more donor funds are needed for the "last mile" of the drive, health experts said on Wednesday.
The prevalence of the malaria parasite in children under five has plunged to 0.2 percent from 4 percent in 2011, according to the National Malaria Control Programme (NMCP).
The total number of new malaria cases across the West African nation has fallen by about 40 percent in that time - to 155,450 last year down from 262,000 in 2011, NMCP data shows.
Gambia is aiming to achieve the milestone of having no new malaria cases by 2020, but donor fatigue is a concern with a funding gap of over $25 million, said NMCP head Balla Kandeh.
"This last mile is the most difficult - we need more support to sustain the gains we have made yet donors often turn their attention elsewhere as cases drop," he said, adding that malaria rates in Gambia may rebound if more funding is not secured soon.
Kandeh hopes that Gambia's new leadership under President Adama Barrow, who won a December election to bring an end to 22 years of autocratic rule under Yahya Jammeh, will attract back donors after many left during the previous regime.
"There is a better working environment under Barrow, with less constraints and less political uncertainty," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "The fear of the unknown has gone."
Aside from the usual control measures, such as antimalarial drugs, insecticide-treated bed nets and indoor spraying, Gambia has successfully used technology to tackle malaria, according to Carla Fajardo of aid agency Catholic Relief Services (CRS).
Tablets, online platforms and GPS have been used to track delivery of the above strategies, with real-time data enabling decisions to be made on the fly, while internet service providers have boosted bandwidth in remote areas, Fajardo said.
The world has made huge strides against malaria since 2000, with death rates plunging by 60 percent and at least six million lives saved globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) says.
But efforts to end one of the world's deadliest diseases - which kills about 430,000 people a year, mostly children in sub-Saharan Africa - are under threat as mosquitoes become increasingly resistant to measures such as bed nets and drugs.