Zimbabwe: Malaria down by 40 percent

JOHANNESBURG, 24 April 2007 (IRIN) - Finally, a good news story out of Zimbabwe: the number of malaria cases in the crisis-ridden country has dropped by 40 percent in the last two years, from three million in 2004 to 1.8 million last year, according to the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

"This is a refreshing and timely piece of good news out of Zimbabwe," said Festo Kavishe, UNICEF's Representative in Zimbabwe. "If we are to make further inroads in reducing child mortality, then, with government, we must work towards 90 percent coverage by the end of 2007, maintain our strong work in immunisation, and ensure greater access to antiretrovirals for children."

Malaria was a leading cause of child mortality until recently, and also contributed 15 percent of patients admitted to all public health facilities, according to UNICEF. Half of Zimbabwe's population lives in malaria-prone areas and past efforts to control the disease have been hampered by the increasing cost of antimalarial medicines and the parasite's growing resistance to the available drugs.

The drop has been attributed to the distribution of 400,000 long-lasting insecticide-treated nets (LLTN) across the country between 2004 and 2006, according to UNICEF spokesman James Elder.

With the support of the Japanese and Norwegian Governments, and the United Kingdom's Department of International Development (DFID), UNICEF has spent more than US$5 million on malaria control and prevention since 2004.

"Malaria is a preventable and treatable disease, and we are very grateful for the support the international community has given," said UNICEF's Head of Health, Dr Colleta Kibassa. "These successes remind us of the simple adage: 'sleeping under an insecticide-treated net saves lives'."

Zimbabwe's 'roll back malaria' campaign has now met the target of ensuring that 60 percent of all under-five children in malarial zones sleep under an insecticide-treated mosquito net.

Specified targets in support of the UN Millennium Development Goals were set for malaria prevention and control in the Abuja Declaration in 2000, when African heads of state and governments met in the Nigerian capital.

At the beginning of 2005, less than seven percent of Zimbabwe's under-five children living in malarial zones slept under mosquito nets; two years later, and amid great economic challenges, that number has risen to 70 percent.

"Malaria not only kills, it also damages productivity and halts development," said John Barrett, head of DFID in Zimbabwe. "A malaria-stricken family spends an average of over one-quarter of its income on treatment. Thus, malaria has far-reaching effects on health and economic productivity. Through UNICEF we have saved lives and assisted development."