First malaria map in 40 years shows extent of disease burden

February 25, 2008

The first global malaria risk map to be developed in forty years has highlighted the 2.37 billion people at risk from one of the world's deadliest diseases. The findings of the Malaria Atlas Project (MAP), funded by the Wellcome Trust, also offer hope that eliminating the malaria risk for almost one billion of these people should be achievable.

Over the past two years, researchers from the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) and the University of Oxford have been compiling information relating to the presence of mosquitoes carrying the malaria parasites and the likelihood they will infect humans as well as studying medical intelligence sources and nationally reported malaria statistics. They have combined these data to develop a new global map of the disease impact and the populations at risk from Plasmodium falciparum, the most deadly malaria parasite. The P. falciparum species of malaria is thought to kill over one million people each year. The results are published today in the open access journal PLoS Medicine.

According to the map, 2.37 billion people are at risk from P. falciparum, mostly in Africa and south and east Asia. However, almost one billion of these people are in areas where the risk of infection is extremely low.

"We were very surprised to find a significant number of people were facing a much lower risk than was previously thought," says Dr Simon Hay from the University of Oxford. "Of course, this does not mean that malaria is any less of a problem, but it gives us hope that eliminating the disease from certain regions may be achievable using tools as simple and cost-effect as insecticide-treated bed nets."

The MAP team believes that by understanding the relative risk affecting different areas, funding agencies and researchers will be able to focus their efforts more effectively.

"By comparing the geographical distribution of malaria risk against spending in that region, we will able to see how effectively funding is being allocated and adjust as necessary," says Professor Snow, head of the MAP team and the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Nairobi.

The MAP also highlights potential problems facing countries currently aiming to eliminate malaria. For example, Saudi Arabia is currently providing substantial financial support for the elimination of malaria in its neighbour, Yemen. However, the new research shows how high rates of population inflow from Somalia will pose a continued concern due to the potential reintroduction of the parasite. Similar dilemmas are faced by countries in south east Asia.

In accordance with the Wellcome Trust's philosophy on open access and data sharing, all the data and techniques used in MAP are being made freely-accessible to the public via the project website (www.map.ox.ac.uk), something the researchers believe is essential if malaria is to be tackled. The maps are intended to be dynamic, allowing researchers to update information as more accurate data becomes available or the situation on the ground changes. Sharing information in the public domain will help promote this exchange.

"It's not just about the science of malaria mapping," says Dr Carlos Guerra from the University of Oxford. "It's also about making this work accessible to an audience that covers everyone from undergraduates who have little idea where malaria exists in the world, to donors who should know, in order to allocate appropriate funds to malaria endemic countries. Making data and maps more accessible on the worldwide web is a large part of the MAP's philosophy of getting the science accessed, critiqued and used by a much wider range of users."
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Wellcome Trust

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