WHO declares China malaria free

(CNN) – The World Health Organization (WHO) declared China officially malaria free on Wednesday, making it the first country in the Western Pacific region to eliminate this potentially deadly disease in more than 30 years.

Malaria, a parasitic disease transmitted by the bite of a female mosquito, kills 400,000 people a year worldwide, most of them children under the age of 5, according to the WHO. There is no licensed vaccine against this disease on the market, although several candidates are being developed, and one of them has shown unprecedented levels of efficiency in the tests carried out this year.

Malaria cases in China have dropped considerably since the turn of the century. In 2020, after reporting four consecutive years of zero endemic cases, China applied for an official WHO malaria elimination certification, which was granted this week.

“Today we congratulate the people of China for ridding the country of malaria,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Wednesday. it’s a statement. “They have earned their success by hand and made possible after decades of specific and sustained action. With this announcement, China joins the growing number of countries that are showing the world that a future without malaria is a viable goal.

There are 40 countries and territories around the world that have been declared malaria free. The only other Western Pacific countries with such accreditation are Australia, Singapore and Brunei, the WHO said.

Malaria had been a serious problem for China in the 1940s, with about 30 million cases annually. Authorities began working to stop the spread of this disease in the 1950s, using preventative drugs and measures to reduce mosquito breeding sites.

The problem was so severe that Communist troops fighting in the mosquito-ridden jungles of Vietnam lost more soldiers to malaria than to bullets. To find a solution, the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Zedong, launched a secret military campaign under the name of «Project 523» in 1967, during the convulsive Cultural Revolution.

The scientist Tu Youyou was part of this secret project and searched for clues in ancient texts and popular manuals, until he collected 2,000 possible remedies. After selecting them and testing them in mice, he discovered a compound that reduced the number of malaria parasites in the blood of rodents, a discovery that led to the drug artemisinin, humanity’s best defense against the disease to date. In 2015 he received the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

These discoveries, along with the development of tools to prevent the disease, such as insecticide-treated nets, helped reduce the number of annual cases in China, which reached 117,000 in the late 1990s. In the early 2000s, the The Global Fund to Fight AIDS provided additional funding, allowing the country to increase training, medicines and laboratory equipment. In 10 years, the cases dropped to 5,000 a year.

Bai Jinhua, chief of microbiology at Meng La County People’s Hospital in China’s Yunnan Province, examines a blood test for malaria parasites in April 2019.

Scientists have continued to advance research in recent years; a population of the world’s most invasive mosquito species, also the main source of bites and disease transmission, was almost completely eliminated thanks to an experiment on two islands in the southern province of Guangdong, according to a 2019 study.

Although China has been declared malaria free, the disease could still return, the WHO warned, adding that the country has a strong malaria surveillance and control program to prevent the disease from re-establishing.

The southern province of Yunnan is at especially high risk of cases being imported, as it borders three countries with high rates of malaria: Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. China also has large migrant worker and diaspora communities in Africa, where malaria is endemic, raising the risk of the disease returning.

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