Opinion

Govt cannot win the battle against malaria alone

Myriam Sidibe | Updated on July 31, 2021

In these Covid pandemic times, a multi-sectoral approach is vital, with substantial help needed from the private sector

Malaria continues to be a major public health problem around the globe, affecting three billion people and causing 400,000 deaths every year. It persists in many tropical areas with weak health systems. Children under the age of five are the most vulnerable group, with one dying every two minutes from the disease. We know how to prevent and treat malaria, so why is it taking so long to eliminate it? And are we being inclusive enough in this work?

Take India, which has over a billion people at risk, one of the highest malaria burdens in the world. June is Anti-Malaria month, observed every year before the monsoon season when transmission is highest. This year, Indian public health officials are focussing on boosting awareness and encouraging community participation to reduce the spread of the disease.

Community participation is essential in India because caseloads have recently plateaued after years of decline due to Central and State government interventions. The Centre says it is committed to practically eliminating the disease by 2030, but the Covid-19 emergency has understandably pushed malaria down the public health agenda this year.

Too damaging

Earlier this year, on World Malaria Day, April 25, international leaders urged countries to continue the work on elimination despite the pandemic. Malaria is just too damaging a condition for us to postpone these efforts — both directly in health, and indirectly in slowing development and destabilising society.

There are potentially huge economic benefits: the total economic burden of malaria in India alone, from factors such as school and work absenteeism, healthcare costs and lost tourism, is estimated to be around $2 billion, but even more significantly it’s been estimated by India’s health ministry that eliminating malaria by 2030 would add $4 trillion to the Indian economy.

One problem is that total anti-malaria spending in India is still low, among the least per capita in South Asia, despite having the highest disease burden per capita in the region. A multi-sectoral approach is therefore vital, with substantial help needed from the private sector. Companies have a responsibility to care for their stakeholders, including employees, consumers and the communities in which they operate. Many of them have strong brands that can help in the struggle against malaria both in the curative and preventative space.

The immediate priority is to keep people out of hospitals, by encouraging preventative behaviours such as sleeping under mosquito nets, and destroying mosquito breeding sites.

That’s essential, but malaria is so endemic in India that more is needed. There are still moments where the squeaky mosquitoes bite people such as after dusk or in the morning hours where they are not under a net. Scientists are now urging households to include spatial household repellents to supplement netting.

Private sector’s role

The WHO sees these repellents as a vital part of malaria prevention ongoing, but it will be a while before non-profits can offer these repellents in the way they currently provide mosquito nets. The private sector in India is therefore stepping up, with products for urban and rural households at many price points.

One leading example is being provided by Goodknight, a subsidiary of Godrej, which now offers a variety of repellents which range from Flash Cards — a small sheet of paper for just one rupee that, when burnt, instantly gets rid of mosquitoes — to the powerful Gold Flash liquid vaporiser.

An even greater opportunity exists to change behaviour — the forte of strong consumer brands. Brands can go beyond their product offerings and encourage the full range of prevention on a daily basis, from destroying nearby breeding grounds to using mosquito nets and repellents.

Eliminating malaria in India is possible and globally is essential for achieving UN Sustainable Development Goals on poverty, health and well-being, sanitation, and urban living. Private brands can help supplement governmental efforts by boosting preventive behaviours at the household level.

The urgency may be greatest in India, now in a public health crisis and trying to relieve its overburdened hospitals. However, as with other public health problems, it’s time for brands to step up and supplement governmental and non-profit measures for the long term, utilising their expertise in innovation and behaviour change.

The writer is a Doctorate in Public Health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Published on July 31, 2021

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