It’s not been a good week to bury bad news – and for the world’s poor, this week has had some very disheartening news indeed. A report published in today’s Lancet has shown that the World Health Organisation’s previous estimates of deaths from malaria have been seriously underestimated. In 2010 the WHO estimated 650,000 deaths – just over half the figure of 1.2 million found in the study.
The reason is that it is notoriously hard to get good figures from countries with poor reporting mechanisms and health infrastructure, unless you spend the time and money to go and look in detail yourself. Last year the same organisation (the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle) showed that maternal mortality was actually lower in the developing world than previous WHO figures had suggested, for the same reason.
Furthermore, in the past the WHO had always emphasised that malaria deaths overwhelmingly affected children of five and under. This report shows that over 42% of deaths are in older children and adults.
But there is a glimmer of hope – the study found that the death toll in 2004 was nearer 1.8 million – so in six years there has been a drop of 32% in malaria deaths, down mainly to programmes of getting bed nets into at-risk communities to protect particularly women and children, and in getting effective treatments, screening programmes, diagnostics and health education programmes set up. The interventions have been working, it’s just that the edifice at which they were chipping away has turned out to be much larger than previously thought.
However, this is a glimmer that could easily get blown out. Over 40% of the funding for all for this work has come from the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria. The same Global Fund that has had to abandon its eleventh round of grant making due to a failure to honour pledges of funding by the rich nations of the world (as we have previously blogged).
In the same week that this news broke, the UK Government (one of the Global Fund’s few reliable donors) has back tracked on an election manifesto pledge to enshrine in law a commitment to give 0.7% of UK GDP to global development – apparently because British voters would rather see the money spent in the UK’s declining health and social services.
The Government still plans to ring-fence aid and development money and financing the Global Fund, but as the second biggest bilateral aid donor on Earth and the second biggest donor to the Global Fund (after the US on both counts), where we lead, others will follow. Now is a bad time to look lacklustre!
Needless to say for the millions dying from malaria, the economic woes of the Western nations are no longer just a distant news story. They are becoming a real threat to their survival. Unless governments and people see that money spent on initiatives like the Global Fund has a real impact in saving lives and improving the quality of life of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of the poorest on Earth, the progress of the last decade could be wiped out almost overnight.