World Malaria Day 2014: Education is key to saving millions of lives

It is a curable and preventable disease. But malaria is still killing more than 600,000 people a year – including a child every minute.

April 25 is World Malaria Day, when the global community stands up and says it is time to defeat this scourge which is still a health risk to more than half of the planet’s population.

To do that, we need to continue the progress made by sustaining investment, innovation and political will.

Significant gains have been made and the tide is turning in the fight against malaria. Since 2000, child deaths have halved and 3.3 million lives have been saved.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: “The global campaign against malaria has shown what is possible when the international community joins forces on multiple fronts to tackle a disease that takes its heaviest toll on poor and underprivileged populations. The advances of recent years show that the battle against malaria can be won.”

One of the keys to that fight is education. Stopping malaria means lower mortality rates among the young and fewer children missing school through sickness. Malaria keeps more children out of school than any other disease, causing upto 10 million missed days each year.

But education has also played a major role in preventing the incidence of malaria, particularly in the most endemic countries. 

A teacher in the Lake Victoria region of Kenya talks to children about malaria prevention Picture: Novartis AG

Health education is important in both preventing and curing patients of malaria – it provides them with a better understanding and awareness of the disease.

Those at risk are far more likely to use insecticide-treated bed nets properly, be aware of the symptoms and know when and how to seek treatment if they have been educated about malaria.

But the benefits of primary and secondary education for the most vulnerable groups in endemic countries also go a long way towards reducing their risk of infection.

Almost half of all malaria deaths occur in just two countries – Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). They are estimated to have around 14 million out-of-school children – 10.5 million in Nigeria and 3.5 million in DRC.

This is no coincidence. Links between education and the risk of malaria are found throughout the world. A study conducted in India – which has more than 1.5 million out-of-school children – found literate people with secondary education were more than twice as likely to know that mosquitos are the transmitters of malaria.

UNESCO’s 2013/14 Global Monitoring Report found that mothers with more education are far more likely to take preventive measures against malaria and seek treatment. The odds of children carrying malaria are estimated to be more than a fifth lower if their mother has primary education.

What is malaria?

Malaria is a life-threatening disease caused by parasites and transmitted to humans through the bites of infected insects.

It usually takes 10 to 30 days for the symptoms to begin – they include fevers, chills, headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and muscle aches. If not treated, it can lead to kidney failure, seizures, mental confusion, coma and death. Most at risk are children, pregnant women and people with HIV/AIDS.

Who is at risk?

Half of the world’s population live in areas affected by malaria and 90% of malaria deaths happen in sub-Saharan Africa. There are more 600,000 deaths each year from 174million cases in that region

About 40% of all deaths occur in Nigeria and DRC. Almost 80% of all victims are under five years old.

In endemic areas, 60% of schoolchildren are affected by absenteeism due to malaria.

What is the treatment?

There is currently no vaccine against malaria. But with early diagnosis, it is entirely treatable. Medication eliminates the parasite from the patient’s blood to prevent i progressing into disease and death.

What can be done to prevent it?

The World Health Organisation says personal protection against bites is the first line of defence.

The two most effective forms are insecticide-treated mosquito nets and indoor spraying with insecticides.

Find out more about World Malaria Day 2014 and related events at the WHO website and the RollbackMalaria website