NEW YORK // Abu Dhabi health chiefs have donated US$25 million (Dh92m) to boost UN efforts to combat malaria, following setbacks to a programme designed to rid the Arabian Peninsula of the mosquito-borne killer by 2015.
The grant from the Government of Abu Dhabi will support the work of the UN's Roll Back Malaria Partnership over the next five years and bolster efforts to eradicate the parasite infection from its last regional strongholds. The UAE was declared malaria-free in 2007, but experts have struggled to wipe out the disease in other Arab regions including the areas bordering Saudi Arabia, where fighting between rebel and government forces has disturbed mosquito-spraying programmes.
Plans to eradicate malaria from the peninsula by 2015 were recently abandoned, but Zaid al Siksek, chief executive of the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (HAAD), said the new target date of 2020 was "achievable". "This money is more than a financial contribution, it is a humanitarian contribution," said Mr al Siksek. "It will signal to other countries that we are doing the right thing and will hopefully be the beginning of a much larger contribution from not just ourselves but from all Arab countries."
Prof Awa Marie Coll-Seck, Roll Back Malaria Partnership executive director and former minister of health of Senegal, said: "You need to have all the countries in a region free from malaria if you want to sustain this status. The work needs to be accelerated now if you really want to see results." Rather than purchasing mosquito nets and drugs or spraying insect-breeding zones, the cash will be spent on strategies to help health ministers in impoverished countries devise programmes to tackle a disease that kills 850,000 people each year.
Half the world's population continues to be at risk from the disease, which is spread by the bite of infected female mosquitoes and causes high fever, shaking and chills. Children and women are the most vulnerable to the disease. The funding agreement follows news that scientists in Mali have made a breakthrough in fighting malaria, with trials of a new vaccine indicating that inoculations can help young children develop a robust immune response to the disease.
Tests on 100 children between the ages of one and six in a rural part of the west African country produced "very strong antibody responses that were sustained for at least a year", according to a report last week in PLoS ONE, the journal of the Public Library of Science. "This is not a very, very good vaccine but it is a first and important step because we have never been able to do this for malaria and for any other parasite," said Prof Coll-Seck. "We cannot say that this is the end of the fight because they are still working on it - but it is already something."
The UAE's Malaria Control Department has reduced the presence of disease-carrying mosquitoes by more than 36 per cent from 1985 to 2008. Dr Mohammed Fikri, the Ministry of Health's executive director for health policies, said the UAE's malaria programme was in its fourth decade. Mobile spray teams in the central region, Ras al Khaimah and the east coast region monitor farms and breeding sites at least weekly, with help from an entomology team. Fish such as tilapia and gambusia are also used to eat mosquito larvae at farms.
"The municipalities perform mosquito-control mainly in the urban areas of Dubai and Sharjah city," said Dr Abdul Aziz al Muthanna, the director of the national Malaria Control Department, located in Sharjah. * The National, with additional reporting by Matt Kwong