IHME Report Says that Malaria Interventions are Working, but the Problem is Bigger than We Thought

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“You learn in medical school that people exposed to malaria as children develop immunity and rarely die from malaria as adults. What we have found in hospital records, death records, surveys, and other sources shows that just is not the case,” said Dr. Christopher Murray, Director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) and lead author of a new study on global malaria mortality.

A new report from IHME published in the Lancet yesterday, Global malaria mortality between 1980 and 2010: a systematic analysis, shows that malaria is responsible for almost twice the number of deaths worldwide than previously believed.

According to the press release about the new study, “IHME researchers say that deaths from malaria have been missed by previous studies because of the assumption that the disease mainly kills children under 5. IHME found that more than 78,000 children aged 5 to 14, and more than 445,000 people ages 15 and older died from malaria in 2010, meaning that 42% of all malaria deaths were in people aged 5 and older.”

The study did not look specifically at the number of pregnant women dying of malaria or the relationship between malaria and maternal morbidity and mortality, but it did show that far more adults are dying from malaria than we previously believed. It is safe to assume that the number of pregnant women dying from malaria is likely also largely underreported.

The good news from the study is that the number of malaria deaths has fallen rapidly in recent years—likely due to the ramping up of efforts to combat the disease. Researchers pointed to the scale-up of insecticide-treated bed nets and artemisinin-combination treatments (ACTs) as major factors in the drop of malaria deaths.

Unfortunately, malaria prevention, screening and treatment among pregnant women remains low, despite clear evidence of effective interventions and significant investment in this area—and it is not clear whether malaria deaths are, in fact, falling for this segment of the population.

The Maternal Health Task Force is exploring opportunities to bring together maternal and newborn health professionals with malaria experts in order to discuss the challenge of low coverage of malaria prevention for pregnant women and how we might work together to ensure that malaria deaths are on the decline for pregnant women as well as the general population.

As our work in this area develops, we will keep you posted here on the MHTF Blog.

Related reading:

Check out the data visualizations that accompany the new study–and explore global trends in malaria mortality between 1980 and 2010.

Read the Washington Post coverage of the new study here.

In an Op-ed in the New York Times on Wednesday, Paul Farmer shares four reasons why it is imperative that the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria continues to get the support it needs.

This study, An Autopsy Study of Maternal Mortality in Mozambique: The Contribution of Infectious Diseases, showed that in a tertiary hospital in Mozambique, at least half of maternal deaths were linked to an infectious disease—and highlighted the importance of implementing malaria prevention strategies such as intermittent preventive treatment and insecticide treated bed nets.

For more information on malaria in pregnancy, visit the Malaria in Pregnancy Consortium website.  Be sure to check out their interactive map of research projects relating to malaria in pregnancy, here.