Why is it so hard to tackle malaria?

Why is it so hard to tackle malaria?

Published date: 20 Apr 2018

Earlier this year, a new global campaign was launched to raise awareness of malaria.

"Malaria Must Die, So Millions Can Live" calls for world leaders to “unite and fight” against the world’s oldest known disease, encouraging the public to declare their support and spread the word. With online content and celebrity partnerships at the heart of the campaign, there’s even a film featuring David Beckham trapped inside a glass box with a swarm of mosquitoes, and #MalariaMustDie is rapidly gaining traction.

You might wonder why a campaign like this is needed. You might assume – like many others – that we’ve been making progress in tackling this age-old enemy.

However, the statistics tell a different story.

The World Malaria Report 2017

Last November, the World Malaria Report produced by the World Health Organization (WHO) came to a disappointing conclusion: worldwide progress in tackling the disease has stalled. With an estimated 216 million cases in 2016 – an increase of 5 million on the previous year – and 445,000 deaths, malaria remains a major global problem.1

“After an unprecedented period of success, we are no longer making progress,” said Dr Abdisalan Noor, the report’s lead author. “What is paramount now is taking this year’s malaria report as a wake-up call to stimulate action.”2

So what’s the problem?

Some of the slowdown is due to lack of investment, with overall funding for malaria stagnating since 2010.1 In fact, the current $2.7 billion per year funding represents less than half the amount needed to hit key WHO targets by 2020.1 But it’s not just a financial issue – there are also biological factors that make malaria difficult to tackle.

The ideal solution, of course, would be a vaccine. Diseases like smallpox and polio have been eradicated or dramatically reduced by vaccination – so why can’t the same be done for malaria?

Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier said than done.

The elusive malaria vaccine

Unlike smallpox and polio, which are both viral diseases, malaria is caused by Plasmodium parasites, which are spread to humans through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes.3 There are five Plasmodium species that cause malaria3, and it’s a huge challenge to make a vaccine that’s effective against all of them.

Secondly, these parasites have a complex life cycle, involving the successive infection of two hosts: humans and mosquitoes. With each stage of its life cycle, the parasite undergoes major biological changes, presenting new antigens to the immune system.4

And if this wasn’t enough, malaria parasites have also developed a whole range of evasion strategies, making them exceptionally good at confusing, misdirecting and hiding from the human immune system.4

Where are we now?

Right now, there are a number of vaccine candidates in development – and any one of them could be the key to a future breakthrough. However, unless we draw attention to the scale of the problem, funding for further research is in jeopardy.

Much of the power lies in the hands of world leaders, but the global community can still play their part. Any future strategy to tackle malaria will require a combination of public awareness, local education and political commitment to make a real impact. 

This is exactly what “Malaria Must Die” sets out to do. Its initial sights are set on pushing for action at the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, but as the campaign continues, it could be the catalyst for something bigger. And by targeting both the public and political leaders with a single, clear message, this new approach could be what we need to change the outlook for malaria.

25 April 2018 is World Malaria Day. The WHO joins partner organisations to promote this year’s theme, "Ready to beat malaria".


1. World Health Organization. World Malaria Report 2017. 2017. Available from: http://www.who.int/malaria/publications/world-malaria-report-2017/en/ [Accessed April 2018].

2. World Health Organization. Q&A on the World malaria report 2017. 2017. Available from: http://www.who.int/malaria/media/world-malaria-report-2017-qa/en/ [Accessed April 2018].

3. World Health Organization. Malaria. 2018. Available from: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs094/en/ [Accessed April 2018].

4. Malaria Vaccine Initiative. Life cycle of the malaria parasite. Available from: http://www.malariavaccine.org/malaria-and-vaccines/vaccine-development/life-cycle-malaria-parasite [Accessed April 2018].


The Purple Agency healthcare team works with many of the world’s leading  pharmaceutical companies. Over the last 10  years, we are proud to have localised content and created campaigns that help our  clients raise awareness of diseases, communicate therapy options to clinicians and give them the information and resources they need to help them improve outcomes for their patients