Malaria & neglected tropical disease collaboration: the time is right!
In 2000 malaria was responsible for nearly 1 million deaths a year, with a disproportionate impact on children under 5. Over the last two decades, an international and collaborative movement across research, health systems, local communities, funders and advocacy has not only brought this neglected disease into the limelight but has succeeded in deploying substantial improvements in disease prevention, awareness, diagnostic and treatment which led deaths from malaria to drop by half.
The work of those engaged in tackling malaria over the past decade has not only resulted in substantial achievements in reducing the toll of malaria, but it has also had positive impact for the control of many other diseases of poverty, including Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs). We would like to take the opportunity of this World Malaria Day to celebrate and reiterate the tremendous opportunities for collaboration and cooperation between the fields of malaria and NTDs to tackle the diseases of the world's poorest and most vulnerable. Many organisations are now inherently leveraging expertise and partnerships across malaria and NTDs to advance towards internal health and development goals.
Advocacy efforts to highlight the scourge of malaria have been invaluable in accelerating placing diseases of the world's poorest and most vulnerable at the forefront of the health and development agendas worldwide. Malaria and NTDs are often co-endemic and direct improvements to the health of populations in those regions derive from partnership between these two fields. Integrating operations to tackle malaria & NTDs at all levels makes sense where these diseases are co-endemic.
In addition to global advocacy, there are many collaborative opportunities across healthcare systems - developing the capacity, facilities and skills for malaria treatment and diagnosis has strengthened healthcare and supply chains overall for affected communities and integrating case management in these areas is cost-effective. Organisations such as the Malaria Consotium have been using bednet distribution as an opportunity for the distribution of preventive chemotherapy for NTDs. There are also substantial opportunities for sharing data and evidence on disease burden and surveillance as well as operations through healthcare systems.
This has also been instrumental in bringing to the world's attention the challenges posed by the world's most dangerous animal: mosquitoes. Although mosquitoes of entirely different species spread different diseases, there are many similarities in the difficulties in controlling this disease vector given its innate ability to adapt to variables such insecticides and new environments. Likewise, best practice and strategies to control mosquitoes or reduce their contact to humans can be integrated across diseases - studies have shown that bednet use against the malaria-carrying mosquito can reduce the incidence of another parasitic disease, leishmaniasis, spread by sandflies. Also, community engagement and awareness measures to prevent mosquito contact or reduce ideal breeding spots for mosquitoes are similar whether tackling the Anopheles, Culex or Aedes species of mosquitoes.
Improvements in the diagnosis of febrile illnesses have also strengthened health systems - anecdotal evidence to thorough research has shown that many diseases including dengue fever, chikungunya or even Ebola can be misdiagnosed as malaria. In areas where the transmission of NTDs has been reduced to low levels or where the parasite burden in individuals is low, there is a strong case for developing novel diagnostic techniques and technologies to accelerate the adequate diagnosis in individuals, but also support disease control programmes as overall numbers of cases fall and global disease control and elimination targets come into sight.
Overall, improved collaboration across malaria and NTDs will result in opportunities for strengthened regional and global collaboration; driving improved harmonisation of community-level healthcare services and supply chain; as well as boost innovation in technology, diagnostics and surveillance, offering substantial healthcare improvements to vulnerable and poor patients worldwide.