The current picture of malaria should concern us all. For the first time in more than a decade, global malaria cases increased and reductions in malaria deaths flatlined, reversing a trend of significant decline since 2000. If the declining trend continues, it could unravel one of the most successful global health efforts in history that helped save nearly 7 million lives and prevent more than a billion malaria cases.
Now, more than ever, the global fight to end malaria needs new ideas. We need to get high-burden countries — especially in sub-Saharan Africa — back on track to continue driving down malaria cases and deaths. And we need countries on track to elimination to stay committed until they get to zero malaria cases.
Sustaining funding for strong and stable health systems is one of the most critical aspects for making this happen. However, we have learned that top-down government investment is not enough. Experience shows that no matter how near or far countries are in achieving zero malaria, we are stronger working together from local communities upward. We are stronger pooling our resources and efforts. We also are stronger when civil society, through community-led action, engages in the fight against malaria.
The story of a woman I know, Ruth, will always stay with me. Pregnant in 2015, Ruth was overjoyed at the prospect of becoming a first-time mother. But then she contracted malaria, developed a high fever, and sadly lost her baby due to a mosquito bite. Ruth channeled her heartbreak into ensuring that no other mother would experience her devastating loss.
She became an educator and an activist, a local champion training pregnant women and young mothers on how to protect themselves and their children against malaria. In 2017, Ruth became a mother. Sleeping under a mosquito net and taking her anti-malarial treatment, she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. She continues to help save lives through her work as an activist.
Ruth’s story reminds us that when genuinely engaged, people have the power to make real change in their families, communities, and beyond. We are the ones driving the engagement of community leaders, health workers, educators, activists, and political leaders in the fight to end malaria, and in helping countries move from aid recipients into lead investors in the health of their citizens.
I am witnessing the impact of a transformative change in my native Cameroon. Malaria No More, working in close partnership with civil society organizations and the National Malaria Control Program, recruited ambassadors including parliamentarians, celebrities, and young people to advocate for consistent budget increases for malaria elimination. We mobilized resources to train health care workers to expand access to life-saving malaria interventions. And we worked with nearly 40 private sector companies on how to protect their employees, which significantly reduced malaria-related absenteeism.
Another powerful example of civil society’s impact is the Zero Malaria Starts with Me campaign, which was first launched several years ago in Senegal by Speak Up Africa, working with the Senegalese Malaria Control Programme, and leaders at all levels of society. The initiative inspired Senegal’s citizens to commit to eliminating malaria in their country. In 2016, Senegal reduced malaria cases by more than 20 percent.
Building on the campaign’s success, the RBM Partnership to End Malaria and the African Union Commission united to scale up and expand the Zero Malaria Starts with Me campaign across the African continent. Launched at the 31st African Union Summit and unanimously endorsed by the African leaders in July, the campaign provides the tools needed to ensure that ending malaria remains high on the agendas of governments, businesses, and communities. So far over 20 countries have joined the campaign, with Niger becoming the latest country to launch their own campaign.
To address what many see as the missing element in the global effort to end malaria, Civil society organizations from all over the world came together in July at the first World Malaria Congress to create the Global Civil Society for Malaria Elimination. Our plan is to accelerate the fight by:
• Framing malaria responses in the context of social justice and human rights, and within universal health coverage.
• Making malaria decision-making spaces more inclusive.
• Fully meeting the funding needs for the malaria response and strengthening health systems.
• Improving malaria surveillance and data sharing.
If funded and empowered adequately, engaged communities can demand greater accountability from government decision-makers and the private sector. We can transform victims of malaria into champions for strong health systems and stable financing to sustain them. And working together, we can deliver the knockout punch to end this disease for good.
Update, Nov. 21, 2018: This article has been updated to clarify that Zero Malaria Starts with Me campaign was launched in July; Niger was the latest country to launch their own Zero Malaria Starts with Me campaign; and that the first World Malaria Congress was in July.