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We’re winning the war on malaria — and saving millions of lives in the process

Angolan children with a bednet.
(Alison Bird/USAID)

Usually, days designated to raise awareness for a specific disease are depressing affairs. It seems like that should be doubly true today, on World Malaria Day: It's a disease so devastating that some scholars estimate it has killed half of all people ever to have existed.

But this year's day is surprisingly upbeat. The theme is "End Malaria for Good" — and it's not just wishful thinking. That's a goal that could be accomplished in our lifetime.

The below chart, from Oxford University researcher Max Roser and his indispensable Our World in Data site, shows why. In the past 15 years, malaria deaths have plummeted — from 839,000 in the year 2000 to just 438,000 in 2015:

Africa is the continent that's by far been the worst affected by malaria in recent years, as you can see in Roser's chart — and that's where most of the gains against malaria have been won.

A major 2015 study in Nature, one of the world's premiere scientific journals, was the first to formally quantify the prevalence of malaria across sub-Saharan Africa between 2000 and 2015 (many afflicted countries aren't very good at collecting data). They found that the incidence of the disease had declined by 40 percent continent-wide.

This owes, in large part, to a global campaign to reduce malaria's spread. According to the Nature study, "interventions" to stop malaria's spread had prevented 663 million cases of malaria over the course of the examined time period.

That's a much higher number than the reductions in deaths shown in the above chart, because malaria isn't always fatal. Which means that malaria interventions don't just save lives: They also prevent an untold amount of suffering.

Sixty-eight percent of the reduction in malaria cases came from a very simple tool: bednets. Malaria is principally spread by mosquitos, so the best way to stop its spread is to give people insecticide-treated bednets (ITNs) that prevent mosquitos from biting them while they sleep. Between 2000 and 2015, governments and charities undertook a massive effort to distribute malarial bednets, passing out roughly 1 billion ITNs globally.

Clearly, it worked.

We're actually at a point where the World Malaria Day theme — "End Malaria For Good" — no longer sounds like a pipe dream. The Nature study found that the campaign to fight malaria has reduced the transmission rate of the disease so dramatically in areas across Africa that about 121 million people now live in places where the disease could plausibly be eradicated:

Crucially, for the feasibility of post-2015 elimination efforts, the population of stable endemic Africa experiencing very low transmission has increased sixfold since 2000 (far outpacing the 50% underlying population growth over the period) meaning there are now 121 (110–133) million people living in settings where elimination campaigns can be considered.

So there's been a massive, global effort to fight malaria worldwide in the past 15 years. It has worked, far better than most people appreciated.

But the work isn't over, and there is still a lot to do.

If you're interested in helping the fight against malaria, there's an easy way to do it: Donate to the Against Malaria Foundation, the world's premiere anti-malaria organization. It's the top-ranked group by GiveWell, a well-regarded organization that assesses the effectiveness and efficiency of charitable organizations. According to GiveWell's estimates, Against Malaria saves one life for every $3,340 it spends.

That's a pretty small sum to have to pay to save a person from one of the worst diseases humanity has ever known. Most of us can afford to chip in.