It took 10 years from the moment the last case of malaria was reported to the moment the United Arab Emirates (UAE) received certification earlier this year by the World Health Organization (WHO) that it was finally free of the debilitating disease.
Eliminating malaria means stamping out endemic cases, or those due to local mosquito-borne transmission, and maintaining this situation for at least three consecutive years. UAE became the first country to be certified in this way in January, since Singapore in 1981 and Australia in 1982.
UAE, with a population of 4.5 million, is one of several countries that have eliminated malaria in the Eastern Mediterranean region--seen as vital for public health, business and tourism--though not all have official malaria-free status. The tiny state's efforts have set a trend.
"Certification for malaria-free status is a competitive process and I expect all malaria-free countries [in the region] will do the same," said Dr Hoda Atta, regional malaria advisor at WHO's Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean (EMRO) based in Cairo.
This year Oman requested WHO certification too. Morocco and the Syrian Arab Republic, which recorded their last locally transmitted cases of malaria in 2004, are expected to follow suit. Oman started its elimination programme in 1991, using a control strategy combining early detection and treatment with indoor residual spraying of insecticides and with vector control with larviciding.
Malaria however remains a major public health problem in six countries in the region of 22 countries--Afghanistan, Djibouti, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen--which account for over 90% of malaria cases. Iraq and Saudi Arabia are well on the way to eliminating the disease.
About half of the region's population of 538 million people remain at risk of infection, with an estimated 15 million clinical cases of malaria and 59 000 deaths every year, according to The worm malaria report 2005.
Yemen and areas over its border in Saudi Arabia continue to fight malaria. Since 2002, Yemen has reduced its cases by a quarter. "The incidence is estimated to be 700 000 to 800 000 annual cases compared to an estimated three million cases five years ago, before the successful national malaria control programme which was reestablished in 2000-2001 with the help of WHO," said malariologist Dr Mohamed Ali Khalifa, a WHO medical officer in Yemen. Yemen recendy received US$ 16 million--much of that from Saudi Arabia--to help with its control efforts.
Sudan has the highest malaria burden in the region with an estimated 7.5 million cases, according to Roll Back Malaria in the Eastern Mediterranean Region: achievements, challenges and the way forward published in 2004. In 2002, the Sudanese government in partnership with WHO and the Roll Back Malaria campaign launched the malaria-free initiative in two states, Khartoum and Gezira. In the other malaria-affected areas, prevention includes insecticide-treated nets and targeted indoor residual spraying. "In central Sudan, these two interventions are compromised by vector resistance to pyrethroids, the insecticide of choice, while alternatives are costly," said Dr Abraham Mnzava, regional adviser on vector control at EMRO.
Pakistan almost succeeded in eradicating malaria in the 1960s according to the 2004 Roll Back Malaria report, but the disease has re-emerged as a serious health problem in some areas of the country. "Pakistan poses the biggest challenge," said Atta. "Its problems stem from its sociopolitical status, being decentralized with four provinces who hardly communicate with each other." In 2003, just over 125 000 cases were reported in Pakistan, according to The worm malaria report 2005.
Its neighbour Afghanistan has achieved some success with malaria control but faces an uphill battle trying to control the main parasite Plasmodium vivax, as the country's health system does not have the facilities to diagnose malaria accurately. …