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For a smarter way to beat malaria we need a data revolution in Africa

Baroness Sheehan | Malaria Consortium

3 min read

As Commonwealth Heads of Government meet, Baroness Sheehan calls for increased investment in malaria surveillance for a smarter approach to beating the disease.

On 18th April, Commonwealth leaders, philanthropists, businesses and civil society will come together to renew their commitment to defeat malaria. This is a disease that disproportionately impacts the Commonwealth – just eight Commonwealth countries accounted for 46 percent of global malaria deaths in 2016.  It has a devastating impact upon the people, health systems and economies of these countries, and so the Commonwealth is uniquely placed to lead the fight to defeat the disease.

The Summit comes at a crucial time. Progress has been exceptional since 2000, with deaths falling by roughly 60 percent, but the World Health Organisation has reported that, for the first time in over a decade, the number of global malaria cases increased in 2016. Funding for malaria has plateaued, drug and insecticide resistance is growing, and progress has slowed – and now seems to be in danger of reversing. The fight against malaria is at a crossroads – and it is up to us which way we turn.

I hope that the Commonwealth can come together and make significant commitments to get us back on track. Increased financial investments are crucial to drive future progress. However, if we are truly serious about defeating malaria for good, we also need a smarter way to fight the disease.

What does being ‘smarter’ mean? It means understanding which communities are most at risk and prioritising appropriate interventions, such as mosquito nets and indoor residual spraying. It means identifying localised patterns of malaria transmission, so interventions can be designed to stop the disease spreading. It means having the capacity to spot a malaria outbreak early on, so that a swift response can be launched before it has claimed thousands of lives. Ultimately, smarter means a more cost effective approach which uses limited resources more rationally and, as a result, has a greater impact on combating malaria.

However to be smarter, we need a shift in the data culture in Sub-Saharan Africa. The availability and use of malaria data has improved globally in recent years, but many of the most endemic countries have been left behind.

By strengthening surveillance systems and the capacity of health staff to collect, analyse and use data, a significantly more accurate understanding of national malaria burdens and trends can be developed. With this knowledge, health planners can confidently allocate resources to where they know they will have the biggest impact.

There are four elements that are needed to drive a data revolution in Africa for malaria:

  • Invest in strengthening disease surveillance systems
  • Improve the completeness, timeliness and quality of data
  • Strengthen the capacity of staff to collect, analyse and utilise data
  • Increase stewardship from WHO to support countries to build sustainable surveillance systems

The old ways of working have got us very far since 2000. But if we are to re-ignite the struggle against malaria and accelerate towards the ambitious targets of 2030, we need smarter, data-driven ways to fight – allowing us to do more with less; targeting what works best where it is needed most. I therefore urge those convening at the Malaria Summit to make strengthening surveillance systems a key element of their malaria commitment, so that we can look forward to Commonwealth free from the blight of malaria.

Baroness Sheehan is a Liberal Democrat peer

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