There are more than 200 million cases of malaria a year worldwide, and it is estimated that a child dies of malaria every two minutes. One quarter of these cases occurs in Latin America. Transmitted person-to-person through the bite of an infected mosquito, malaria is considered one of the world’s most preventable killers.
“As with any mosquito-borne illness, malaria is preventable so long as municipalities work to create an environment that keeps mosquitos from reproducing and encouraging the use of repellents whenever possible,” says Carlos Espinal, director of the Global Health Consortium at the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work. “The key is simply to avoid being bitten, but for many communities that really means that they need to be further educated to understand the risks and how to take the proper precautions.”
As part of the consortium’s mission to end the spread of vector-borne, or mosquito spread, diseases such as malaria, Espinal and Andria Rusk, research assistant professor with the Global Health Consortium, are collaborating with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) on the Municipalities for Zero Malaria’ initiative, part of the Malaria Champions of the Americas program.
“It is our responsibility to empower municipalities with the tools they need to protect their communities,” Rusk says. “Providing municipalities with a platform to share tools that proved effective for them, and their lessons learned in undertaking malaria elimination efforts, is a key objective of the Malaria Champions of the Americas program.”
This year, the three malaria champions selected were Puerto Lempira, Honduras; La Gomera, Guatemala; and São Gabriel da Cachoeira, Brazil.
“The ultimate awardee this year is Puerto Lempira. This municipality stood out among the other submissions because of their considerable progress in nearing to malaria elimination, showing a 98-percent reduction in P. Falciparum malaria cases and a 96-percent reduction in malaria cases overall,” Rusk says. “The community also showed outstanding achievements in using micro stratification, georeferencing, community volunteers, sustained investment, and judicious use of technology in challenging environments.”
Espinal, who has served as a voting jury member of the Malaria Champions of the Americas since 2013, says that the progress in these municipalities is making a tremendous difference. Each year, the selected champions receive opportunities for future developments and capacity building, a financial stipend toward malaria elimination efforts, an invitation to present their efforts and strategies toward elimination to key leaders in the field.
The communities recongized receive a commemorative plaque and become role models. Being named Malaria Champion carries great significance. Paraguay was selected Malaria Champion in 2012 and became the first country in South America to entirely eliminate malaria just a few years later. They were certified malaria-free by the WHO in 2018.
However, the rest of the continent still has challenges, further underscoring the need to continue the Malaria Champions program.
“Malaria in Latin America and the Caribbean remains a problem largely due to changes in population dynamics and immigration patterns, in part due to the economic crisis in Venezuela and other areas of unrest,” Espinal explains. “By improving surveillance data and encouraging a ground-roots level approach to change, we are seeing an improvement that is saving lives.”