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Publication date: 
September 16, 2015

Innovative new work in disease mapping to be funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The most detailed mapping of malaria to date shows tremendous progress over the past two decades in sub-Saharan Africa and the promise of fewer infections and deaths in the years to come, according to a new study published in the journal Nature.

The research, led by the Malaria Atlas Project (MAP), a multinational team of scientists based at the University of Oxford, found dramatic and widespread declines, with the overall rate of malaria infections falling by 50% between 2000 and 2015.

“We can see for the first time at a very detailed level how the world is making incredible progress in stopping malaria, which has been a horrible disease that has harmed and killed millions worldwide,” said Simon Hay, Director of Geospatial Science at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, co-founder of the Malaria Atlas Project, and one of the study’s authors.

The study, “The effect of malaria control on Plasmodium falciparum in Africa between 2000 and 2015,” was funded by the UK Medical Research Council and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation this week also announced a new project to go beyond malaria mapping and apply cutting-edge geospatial techniques to the five leading causes of infectious diseases in low-income countries: malaria, HIV, tuberculosis, diarrhea, and pneumonia. In addition, the research team – led by Dr. Hay – will map lymphatic filariasis, onchocerciasis, and human African trypanosomiasis.

“These malaria maps have led to huge shifts in how the world combats the disease, allowing funders and governments to target the right populations with the right interventions,” said Trevor Mundel, President of Global Health at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Our hope is that we will be able to accelerate this type of progress with maps in these new areas.”

The world has seen unprecedented spending to combat infectious diseases since the advent of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000. For malaria, this has led to a rapid scale-up in the dissemination of bed nets, insecticides, and antimalarial drugs. The combined effect of these interventions has remained a mystery to date.

Researchers estimated that the combined malaria control efforts since 2000 have prevented 663 million cases of Plasmodium falciparum, the most deadly form of the disease. Insecticide-treated bed nets are estimated to be responsible for two-thirds of this impact.

To generate those estimates, the Malaria Atlas Project team gathered data from nearly 30,000 sites across sub-Saharan Africa, showing malaria infections, bed net use, and information on other control measures. With the help of a spatial computer model created by the Malaria Atlas Project, the researchers developed maps that pinpoint where malaria is falling and how that relates to malaria control efforts.

“Despite the large sums invested in malaria control, our understanding of the impact on the ground has been patchy. We’ve been able to provide here reliable and compelling evidence of just how big the impact has been and proof that malaria control is one of the smartest ways to spend aid,” said Pete Gething, Associate Professor in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford and one of the study’s authors.

Gething also warned that success in the fight against malaria is not a given.

“More than half a million children still die from malaria in Africa each year, and despite the huge improvements, access to nets, spraying, and drugs is still way below where it needs to be. We’ve shown these cheap and effective control measures have made a huge dent in African malaria, but this is no time for triumphalism – what’s needed now is a redoubling of efforts to get the job done.”

The study also provided evidence for a major new report, “Achieving the Malaria MDG Target,” by the World Health Organization and UNICEF highlighting the contribution that successes against malaria have made to meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MGDs) and how the target of halting and beginning to reverse the incidence of malaria by 2015 has been met.

Further information about the Malaria Atlas Project and interactive maps showing how malaria has changed in Africa can be found at www.map.ox.ac.uk

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