'Oman key player in war against malaria'



Muscat: While there has been great progress in the battle against malaria in the Gulf region, which includes the Arabic Peninsula, the Caucuses and northwest Asia in this Roll Back Malaria (RBM) report, some 250 million people here remain at the risk of catching malaria. Each year, approximately 2.9 million people in the region are infected with it, and an estimated 3,100 people lose their lives.

Herve Verhoosel, Head of External Relations and Representative for the Roll Back Malaria (RBM) Partnership in New York, spoke to Times of Oman ahead of his visit to Muscat today. He delved on the latest report, the current malaria landscape, the work of RBM and the important role the GCC countries could play in the fight against malaria. Excerpts:

Why are you visiting the Gulf region this week?
I am here to advance dialogue on malaria and the UN's Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), at the request of Princess Astrid of Belgium, Special Representative to the Roll Back Malaria (RBM) Partnership. Countries in the Gulf region are important allies in the fight against malaria, and I am excited to be here to meet with leading government officials to exchange views on global malaria control efforts.

What role could countries like Oman play to help RBM achieve its goals?
Oman could be a strong ally in the fight against malaria, specifically through increased investment in malaria control efforts by, for example, supporting the Roll Back Malaria partners. As a political leader and a key member of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Oman is also well positioned to encourage political leadership and investment by neighbouring countries in global malaria control efforts.

What role could the GCC play in the global efforts against malaria?
As the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) takes on a more prominent role globally, the fight against malaria presents a key opportunity for the group and its member countries, particularly given the announcement earlier this year by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, that malaria is one of his key priorities under his second mandate.

GCC countries have an opportunity to lead by example, making wise financial investments in global malaria control efforts to help countless communities in OIC countries and thrive around the world. The GCC's support for malaria control efforts in Yemen, where 60 per cent of the population is at risk of malaria infection, would also be important. Despite increased efforts and funding, malaria continues to infect an estimated 800,000 Yemeni people each year, and the GCC could play a critical role in the country's efforts to overcome the disease.

What is the current status of global malaria control efforts?
In recent years, we've seen significant progress against malaria. We've decreased global malaria deaths by one-third, and 43 countries worldwide have reduced their malaria cases or deaths by 50 per cent. And, enough insecticide treated nets have been distributed to cover nearly 80 per cent of the population at risk in sub-Saharan Africa. But still, our successes are partial and fragile. Almost half of the world's population remains at risk from malaria. Despite unprecedented advances in prevention, diagnostics and treatment, malaria continues to infect approximately 216 million people each year, killing an estimated 655,000. RBM recently launched a report called 'Progress and Impact: Defeating Malaria in Asia, the Pacific, Americas, Middle East and Europe'.

What is this report about and why is it important?
'Defeating Malaria in Asia, the Pacific, Americans, Middle East and Europe' is part of RBM's Progress and Impact series, which highlights a strategic effort to secure high levels of commitment to malaria control among donor countries, international health organisations and governments of endemic and epidemic countries by benchmarking progress and documenting impact in the fight against malaria in specific areas or countries.

This particular report, which was launched during the recent 'Malaria 2012: Saving Lives in the Asia-Pacific' summit hosted by the Australian government in Sydney, focuses on efforts against malaria in regions around the world outside of Africa including the Middle East to shed light on the most urgent challenges and opportunities for malaria control and elimination in these affected regions.

While there has been great progress against malaria in the Gulf region which includes the Arabic Peninsula, the Caucuses and northwest Asia in this RBM report some 250 million people in the area remain at risk of malaria infection. Each year, approximately 2.9 million people in the region are infected with the disease, and an estimated 3,100 people lose their lives. Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan are the three highest-burden countries in the area, accounting for more than 95 per cent of all regional cases, largely due to security concerns and weakened health systems.

What does malaria look like in OIC countries specifically?
Nearly half of all cases of malaria occur in predominantly Muslim countries. In fact, many of the highest burden countries are members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
But there is evidence of progress in these countries. In OIC countries specifically, more than 55 million insecticide-treated nets have been distributed to communities and more than 75 million cases of malaria have been treated in accordance with effective national guidelines, thanks to strong political leadership at the country level and support from the Global Fund.

What will it take to achieve the goals of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership?
At this critical stage, we must intensify our efforts to ensure adequate resources are in place so we can sustain these gains and continue to save lives. No single organisation or government can defeat malaria. There are many actors in the global fight against malaria, but we have one global plan the Global Malaria Action Plan (GMAP) and a solid coordinating mechanism in the Roll Back Malaria Partnership. These two elements are the foundation of our progress and success; they provide a road map for success and evidence that our goals are feasible given the right resources and commitment. Close cooperation by all partners is required to reach our goal of providing effective and affordable protection and treatment to all people at risk of malaria. Now more than ever, we must maintain our financial commitments to these efforts so that we can sustain the gains and continue to save lives, even in the face of economic difficulty.

Why is it so important to invest in global malaria control efforts?
To best understand the importance of investment in any given health intervention, it's important to study the return on that investment. With malaria, we know that the return is high and the cost is low. In fact, new research indicates that every $1 invested in malaria in Africa generates approximately $40 GDP. The simple, proven tools we have to prevent and treat malaria account for some of the most cost-effective health interventions of our time, and they have the potential to lift entire generations around the globe out of poverty.
Our malaria control efforts will not only help achieve UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 6, they will also help to advance progress against several other MDGs across the board.

How is malaria a driver of poverty?
Malaria has tremendous economic impact on already struggling communities around the world, costing governments and societies billions of dollars in healthcare costs and lost productivity. In Africa alone, where 90 per cent of malaria deaths occur, malaria costs an estimated minimum of $12 billion in lost productivity each year. Malaria cases and deaths are not simply numbers, they are lives lost and promise not realized. Malaria keeps parents out of work, teachers out of the classroom and children out of school. In fact, this preventable and treatable disease is the number one reason for school absenteeism in Africa. When we invest in malaria, we not only invest in health, we invest in future generations of leaders.

What will increased financial commitments mean to the fight against malaria?
Investments in malaria prevention and control have been among the best investments in global health, resulting in a dramatic decrease in malaria deaths and illness. We've seen global investments in malaria peak in recent years, helping us make great progress against this preventable and treatable killer, but we're at a critical juncture. Difficult economic times have left us with a financial gap of an estimated $3.2 billion in Africa through 2015.

What is the biggest threat to malaria control efforts?
Resistance to the most effective course of treatment for malaria — Artemisinin-based Combination Therapies (ACTs) — has been confirmed in four countries in the region: Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam. The threat of this resistance on both regional and global progress against malaria is very real, as its spread could potentially leave the nearly 3 billion people around the world at risk of infection with no effective course of treatment.

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