On World Malaria Day, the latest figures reveal just how devastating, and daunting, the disease still is. It threatens about 3.2 billion people, over half the world’s population.

In 2015, 97 countries had on-going malaria transmission. There were around 214 million cases and the disease killed 438,000 people.

Although those figures are sobering, the good news is that the fight against malaria is gaining ground.

Experts think the disease can be eradicated completely by 2040

With the right funding and the active support of national governments, malaria eradication is seen as a very real prospect. No one is saying it will be easy, or cheap, but with a concerted and continuous international effort we could see a malaria-free world within a generation.

 When will the world be free of malaria?
Image: World Economic Forum

Unprecedented progress in the past 15 years

Since the year 2000, the rate of global malaria deaths has fallen dramatically and half of the world’s nations are now malaria-free.

Gains against malaria account for 20% of the total progress that the world made in reducing preventable child and maternal mortality under the Millennium Development Goals.

Incidence of the disease fell 37% globally between 2000 and 2015, and mortality by 60%, saving over 6 million lives, according to the most recent World Malaria Report.

 Spending on malaria and estimated deaths from the disease
Image: The Economist

The armoury of weapons against the disease is getting bigger

So far the battle against malaria has mostly been fought with heavy investment in bed nets treated with insecticide, epidemiological surveillance, and rapid diagnosis and treatment. This has had a huge impact and will continue to be a key part of the global strategy.

But there is also a new pipeline of drugs, vaccines, diagnostics and insecticides in development. While the world’s first malaria vaccine is no silver bullet, it is a vital first step towards a more effective generation of drugs.

Gene therapy could also help control the disease by making mosquitoes more susceptible to insecticides or making the insects infertile.

In the places malaria has been eradicated, it is staying eradicated

More than 100 United Nations member states have successfully eliminated malaria, and history has shown that elimination “sticks” once it has been achieved.

This means that regions that have eliminated the disease will not need to maintain costly and intensive malaria surveillance efforts and can use more general infectious-disease surveillance to avoid resurgence.

As the battle progresses, fighting malaria will get cheaper

It is estimated that about $5.1 billion is needed every year to successfully eradicate malaria. That is double the funding currently available. But as the number of countries with malaria falls, the overall cost of eradication will fall too.

There is also a huge return on investment thanks to the compounding benefits of saving lives. It is thought that malaria eradication will unlock $2 trillion in total economic benefits.