Public health interventions in countries worst affected by malaria have helped reduce the number of people dying from the disease by 60% since 2000, said a joint World Health Organization-UNICEF report on Thursday.
While the number of overall cases fell by just 20%, the number of people killed by the disease has plummeted to an estimated 438,000 in 2015. Fifteen years ago, an estimated 262,000,000 malaria cases resulted in nearly 840,000 deaths, most of them children under five, the document said.
Despite the huge numbers of people still being infected with the parasite, which is spread by mosquitoes, health officials claim that a vital Millennium Development Goal to halt and reverse the incidence of malaria by 2015 has been “convincingly” met.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan hailed the reduction as “one of the great public health success stories of the past 15 years”.
The report found an increasing number of countries were on the verge of eliminating the disease. In 2014, 13 countries reported zero cases and six had fewer than 10 cases.
Most of the success was reported in Asia and the Caucasus, while sub-Saharan nations will still likely account for nearly 80% of global malaria deaths this year. Officials say Africa continues to lag substantially behind other regions of the world in eradicating the disease.
Malaria kills mostly young children in remote and poor areas and remains a severe, life-threatening disease for hundreds of millions of people.
Since 2000, more than a billion insecticide-treated bednets (ITNs) have been distributed in Africa. The latest estimates suggest that two thirds of young children now sleep under the nets.
Some 68% of malaria cases over the past 15 years were stopped by ITNs, according to a separate Oxford University study. Anti-malarial drugs and indoor spraying accounted for 22% and 10% of cases prevented, respectively.
Despite the achievements, hopes have been dashed that a new malaria vaccine would prove effective.
The UN has set a new 15-year target to reduce the number of malaria cases by a further 90%. The agency has called for a tripling of annual funding to €7.7bn ($8.7bn) by 2030, amid fears that a drug-resistant strain of the disease has been found.