Image: Comic Relief
Fighting Malaria, Improving Health. Together
“We know what works. The challenge now is to do even more.”
That was the mission set out by Dr Margaret Chan, World Health Organization director-general, as she introduced the latest annual malaria report. Published just last month, this showed astonishing progress against one of the world’s oldest and deadliest diseases. Since the start of the millennium, malaria death rates have fallen by 60%; more than 6 million deaths have been averted.
Making sure more people are sleeping under bed nets, scaling up use of diagnostic tests and improving access to medicines has all helped to curb malaria. We know what works. But there is much further to go. Malaria still claims more than 400,000 lives a year, most of them young children in Africa. Not only does this devastate families, but drains health systems and economies. The challenge now is to do even more and the WHO has set out a target to reduce malaria cases and deaths by 90% by 2030. This is an incredible ambition, which will take teamwork.
So Comic Relief and GSK have joined forces in a five-year partnership to support these efforts by fighting malaria and improving health in five countries worst affected by the disease. Neither organisation is new to tackling malaria. GSK’s legacy in fighting the disease stretches back more than a century, with Sir Henry Wellcome pioneering organised research into tropical diseases. The business continues to drive innovation into malaria medicines and vaccines – on a non-profit basis – as well as supporting community malaria prevention and education.
Comic Relief’s commitment to fight malaria dates back to 2009, when nine celebrities led by Gary Barlow scaled Mount Kilimanjaro to raise awareness and funds for malaria. Since then, Comic Relief has continued to use its annual fundraising campaigns –Sport Relief and Red Nose Day – as a platform to raise awareness of the devastating impact of malaria and makes grants to organisations on the ground who are fighting malaria and improving health.
By teaming up to fight the disease together, we hope to build on these respective legacies and work with communities to help make a bigger impact. A new fund – created through a £17m donation from GSK and £5m from Comic Relief – will provide targeted grants over the next five years to organisations on the frontline, tackling malaria and improving health in five malaria endemic countries. So how can we help ensure that these investments will make the greatest possible difference?
To that end, the partnership has enlisted the guidance of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. A team led by David Schellenberg, Professor of Malaria and International Health, is carrying out a scoping study to analyse how the partnership can best complement and enhance access to healthcare provision and current malaria interventions in endemic countries. In other words: helping more people access prevention, diagnosis and treatment when they need it, where they need it.
Only by making health systems fundamentally stronger – with trained health workers, better management and use of data, and better access to medicines and technology – is it possible to reach more people with malaria control tools. This has the added benefit of creating the infrastructure for managing other health challenges. So Prof Schellenberg’s team conducted a literature review to analyse where the strengths and gaps are in current health system provision, and which health system interventions are most effective for controlling malaria.
This was whittled down to a final list of 26 interventions in which the partnership could consider making investments. Initial findings point to focusing investments in organisations that are taking steps to support frontline health workers; improve data gathering to help track the location of malaria and the impact of malaria control; and create demand in affected communities for diagnostic tests and appropriate use of anti-malarial medicines.
The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine also assessed which countries the partnership should consider investing in. Based on criteria such as burden of malaria and presence of high-risk populations, the study recommended the partnership make investments in Ghana, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and the Greater Mekong region. In Ghana, available data show that use of malaria treatments is relatively low; while in Sierra Leone, rates of cases and deaths from malaria remain stubbornly high despite use of malaria interventions.
Full results from the study will be available early this year and first decisions on grant-making taken later in 2016. These grants will be made and managed by Comic Relief. When it comes to measuring the partnership, this will also be guided by the scoping study. Factors for consideration will be reduced malaria prevalence and incidence, and reduced mortality for women of reproductive age and children under five living in some of the poorest and most marginalised communities.
Through working with communities and supporting global efforts to fight malaria, we hope to play our part in supporting efforts to significantly reduce the burden of malaria. Achieving this would help unlock both human and economic potential: health workers would have an opportunity to focus their energies on other challenges; communities would thrive and children would have the chance to grow up healthy. A future free from malaria is worth fighting for. Together.