First Malaria World Congress explores ways forward as elimination efforts stall

Maelle Ba from Senegal introduces Zero malaria starts with me: a movement for a malaria free Africa Senegal

Maelle Ba from Senegal introduces Zero Malaria Starts With Me: a movement for a malaria free Africa – Author's photo from Malaria World Congress

The 1st Malaria World Congress has warned that the ‘fight to eliminate malaria is at a crossroads’. The global ‘declining trend’ has stalled according to the World Health Organisation. Funding has also plateaued:

Melbourne seemed an unlikely venue to hold this congress. It is a long way from the countries that accounted for most of the estimated 216 million cases and 445,000 deaths globally in 2016.

However, there are real problem areas on Australia’s doorstep such as the Mekong region and Papua New Guinea:

A keynote speech by Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop included a welcome funding announcement:

However, not everyone was impressed given the cuts in overseas aid by her government during the last five years:

There were 1000 participants from 60 countries with diverse backgrounds including: drug and vector researchers and developers; non-government organisations, government agencies and policy planners; academics; private sector companies; and community representatives.

So it was no surprise that a lot of interest was generated on social media. In fact, the organisers had produced a guide, 8 tips for using Twitter, with the help of Inis Communication. They were suitably pleased that the official twitter hashtag #malariacongress trended several times during the five days.

It's not all bad news

There was lots of good eradication news, with prime examples coming from Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Professor Sir Richard Feachem underlined these successes in his address:

There were also positive stories from Africa such as the new campaign Zero Malaria Starts with Me.

Future directions

Many future challenges were discussed during the gathering. These included: vector [mosquito] control, drug and insecticide resistance, diagnosis and treatment, community engagement, and financing. Professor Feachem looked at five of these and was least confident about vaccine development:

Philip Welkhoff, from the Gates Foundation, brought experience of tackling other diseases:

Shaz Sivanesan listed a variety of factors that she believes need to be addressed:

Scarce funding was a major concern. The economic case for greater investment was strongly argued:

The importance of community engagement was a recurring theme. The role of volunteering was highlighted but this has issues of its own including financing:

Magic bullets and smoking guns

The quest for new drugs to treat infected patients remains a high priority. For example, Tafenoquine is being hailed as the latest breakthrough for its cost effectiveness and ease of use:

However, it is one of the drugs at the centre of a controversy concerning drug trials on members of the Australian Defence Force. The Quinoline Veterans and Families Association (QVFA) is a grassroots veteran community group:

Many of the veterans who were given Tafenoquine during drug trials now suffer from serious, chronic illnesses including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, major depression and anxiety, seizures, hallucinations and psychosis.

QVFA member Stuart McCarthy and others members and supporters tweeted throughout the congress about the issue but received very few responses:

The linked news item in this tweet concerns recent calls for an inquiry from two Federal members of the Australian parliament.

Innovative ideas

Hidden among all the science and policy were a couple of creative solutions concerning programs on the ground.

Sibo is an educational initiative of the University of Pretoria Institute for Sustainable Malaria Control.

Camilla Burkot tried some lateral thinking. LLINs are Long Lasting Insecticidal Nets (Just one example of countless and often obscure initials washing around the congress):

Takeaway messages

A couple of researchers from the co-host Burnet Institute shared their impressions:

The congress concluded with a Statement of Action. Its key priorities are:

1. Think creatively outside existing solutions and promote scientific and social innovation.
2. Engage vulnerable communities and civil society.
3. Listen, then act collaboratively.
4. Hold ourselves to account. Facilitate cross-sector conversations and relationships.
5. Commit to mobilizing increased and sustained financing.

If you would like to see more of the 4000 tweets, health journalist Alistair Quaile @aliquaile created a Twitter Moments that brings together some of the highlights.

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