We can – and must – stop malaria in the Americas

Bill Gates gives a keynote speech at the 2011 Malaria Forum. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s 2011 Malaria Forum was held Oct. 17-19th at the Grand Hyatt in Seattle, WA. Receptions were held at the Foundation’s campus and the Seattle Aquarium.
Bill Gates gives a keynote speech at the 2011 Malaria Forum. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s 2011 Malaria Forum was held Oct. 17-19th at the Grand Hyatt in Seattle, WA. Receptions were held at the Foundation’s campus and the Seattle Aquarium.

Today, April 25th, is World Malaria Day, a milestone marking the ongoing global fight against this deadly illness.

Here in the United States, mosquitoes are largely considered summertime pests in places like Florida. But across the globe, mosquito-borne malaria takes 435,000 lives each year. That means that every two minutes, a child dies from this preventable, treatable disease. I’ve seen the terrible toll of malaria firsthand, treating earthquake survivors in my native Haiti. And I believe no one, no matter where they live, should die from a mosquito bite.

There is good news: The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that fewer people are dying from malaria worldwide compared with the previous year. In 2018, Paraguay became the first country in the Americas in nearly half a century to be deemed malaria-free by WHO — truly progress to celebrate. Another 21 nations have the potential to join Paraguay by next year, including Belize and El Salvador. Overall, malaria in the Americas is down by more than 60 percent since 2000.

There’s also sobering news: The number of people infected with and suffering from malaria is on the rise. More than half of the world’s population is in danger of contracting the illness. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) estimates that in malaria hotspots such as the Amazon 138 million people are at risk of malaria.

Alarmingly, malaria cases in Venezuela have spiked exponentially during the political and humanitarian crisis there, with more than 1 million cases last year. Malaria in the Americas disproportionately harms the most vulnerable, like rural residents without health care, indigenous peoples, and those in border zones.

That growing threat makes it more vital than ever that health organizations redouble their efforts to combat malaria alongside our neighbors to the south. At the University of Miami, as we look toward our centennial in 2025, fighting disease across the Americas and throughout the world is central to President Julio Frenk’s aspiration to become the hemispheric and relevant university. We join the rest of the world in working to maximize precious, life-saving momentum against malaria.

Malaria doesn’t just damage a person’s health, causing pain, suffering, and sometimes death. It endangers the economic vitality of developing nations when sick adults cannot work and sick children cannot learn. Establishing infrastructure for malaria prevention, control, and elimination strengthens health systems, particularly benefiting mothers, babies, and children. The effort to end malaria in the region offers an unprecedented opportunity for investments in local health care and human capital.

Malaria elimination in the Americas is also a matter of health security. Here in Miami, malaria can be easily spread by residents traveling for business, humanitarian projects, or pleasure to malaria-endemic areas a short, two-hour plane journey away. This risk compels U.S. government leaders, advocates, and ordinary citizens to call for ongoing collaboration with and robust funding for health agencies and governments to block malaria across nearby borders. Ongoing support to programs such as the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is essential.

Shifting environmental conditions add to the urgency of this fight: According to groundbreaking climate research by my University of Miami colleague, Geography Professor Douglas O. Fuller, rising temperatures have enabled disease-carrying mosquitoes that thrive in warm habitats to reach new elevations and population centers in the Americas and Africa.

History proves that the Americas are capable of dramatic public health breakthroughs. Organizations in the region on the front lines of infectious disease successfully eliminated smallpox in 1971, polio in 1994, and rubella and congenital rubella syndrome in 2015. This commitment led professors from the University of Miami’s Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine to visit Washington, D.C., recently with the United Nations Foundation’s Nothing But Nets Leadership Summit to advocate on Capitol Hill for funding to stop malaria. Many countries in the Americas are on the cusp of malaria elimination, with cases in some places dropping by half. But stalling funds and collapsing health systems in places like Venezuela could hamper progress and allow the disease to spread.

Strong U.S. leadership must work with country partners to save lives, protect public health across the region, and prevent a malaria resurgence here at home. Overcoming the challenge of diagnosing and treating malaria in remote areas will require continued partnerships between governments, the private sector, communities, and international institutions. Support from entities like PMI and the Global Fund, with sustained investment from donor countries including the U.S., has helped save millions of lives from malaria. This disease can be wiped out, but not if we stand still. We must step up the fight to end malaria in the Americas – and everywhere — for good.

Dr. Henri R. Ford is a pediatric surgeon and the Dean of the University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine.