Does malaria kill an African child every 30 seconds?

Researched by Vinayak Bhardwaj

With the outbreak of zika virus disease in South America, attention turned away from the world’s most deadly mosquito-borne disease: malaria.

While it’s no longer the leading cause of death among children in sub-Saharan Africa, malaria still accounts for 10% of child deaths. In raising awareness, organisations in this field therefore often focus on malaria’s impact on young children, who are more vulnerable to the disease.

Earlier this year, the science news website Science Daily bulletin introduced a report on a new malaria treatment strategy by claiming that “one child dies from malaria every 30 seconds in Africa”.

Shortly afterwards, the leader of the US President’s Malaria Initiative, rear admiral Tim Zeiner, claimed in an article that “in Africa, a child dies every minute because of [malaria]”.

Following that, the African Leaders Malaria Alliance, a coalition of 49 African heads of state and governments, was quoted as saying “an African child still dies every two minutes from [malaria].” The statistic is also listed on their official malaria fact-sheet.

So which time interval is it?

WHO website contains ‘transcription error’

Professor Sanjeev Krishna of the Institute for Infection and Immunity at St George’s University in London, whose study was cited in the Science Daily article, told Africa Check: “[This is a] well-accepted statistic… Visit the WHO website on malaria… [where] you can verify [it] independently.”

Zeiner from the US President’s Malaria Initiative did not get back to us. The African Leaders’ Malaria Alliance said that their figure was calculated from a statistic listed on the World Health Organisation’s website which said: “In 2015, about 305,000 African children died before their fifth birthdays.”

The director of ALMA, Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur, told Africa Check: “With 525,600 minutes in a year, this works out on average to one child every two minutes.”

But the WHO’s 2015 malaria report has a different figure. It stated that on estimate a total of 305,000 children under 5 died worldwide of malaria last year, with 292,000 of those deaths occurring in Africa.

Estimated number of malaria deaths in children under 5 in 2015 (WHO)
Region Number of deaths
Africa 292,000
Americas 100
Eastern Mediterranean 2,200
European 0
South-East Asia 10,000
Western Pacific 1,500

Africa Check contacted the lead author of the world malaria report, Dr Richard Cibulskis. He said the figure of 305,000 deaths must have been a “transcription error”, adding that “the number on the WHO website… appears to refer to the global total rather than [deaths of] African children”.

(Note: We asked the WHO whether they will correct the error on their website, but have not yet heard back from them.)

True extent of malaria difficult to calculate

The WHO malaria report focuses on children under the age of 5 because this age group accounted for an estimated three-quarters of the world’s malaria deaths in 2015.

Deaths were calculated using two methods. In countries where the quality of death certificates is acceptable, that data was used. However, in countries where this isn’t the case and the number of malaria deaths is high, the data came from verbal autopsies.

A verbal autopsy is typically conducted by a trained interviewer using a questionnaire to collect information about the signs and symptoms of someone who died from a person familiar with the deceased.

The WHO malaria report is considered “the best source of data on deaths due to malaria” by the principal investigator of the Malaria Clinical Research Group at the University of Cape Town. But professor Karen Barnes said that sourcing data from different health authorities introduces variation.

This is because not “all countries record malaria deaths in the same way – it is sometimes misclassified and thus not recorded correctly”, the deputy director of the malaria programme in South Africa’s national health department, Dr Eunice Misiani, told Africa Check.

The true extent of malaria’s impact on Africa is therefore difficult to calculate, but “available data may not be too far wrong as some factors increase and other factors decrease notification, which may balance each other out to some extent”, Barnes said.

So how often does an African child die of malaria?

Due to the variation in data from across the continent, the WHO estimates the highest and lowest number of deaths that can be attributed to malaria.

Number of malaria deaths in children under 5 in Africa
Middle estimate 292,000
Lowest estimate 212,000
Highest estimate 384,000

Using this data we can calculate how often, on average, an African child died of malaria in 2015. This works out to just under every 2 minutes when using the middle estimate.

Middle estimate 1 min 48 sec
Lowest estimate 2 min 28 sec
Highest estimate 1 min 22 sec

Conclusion: Claim that an African child dies of malaria every 30 seconds is incorrect

Despite the significant progress made in eradicating malaria – with the total number of malaria deaths dropping from an estimated 764,000 in 2000 to 395,000 in 2015 – African children under 5 continue to make up the majority of deaths.

However, it is certainly not once every 30 seconds, as claimed in the Science Daily Bulletin. Similarly, the figure used by the leader of the US President’s Malaria Initiative of “a child’s death every minute” is incorrect, even if one uses the lowest possible estimate.

The African Leaders’ Malaria Alliance’s figure of a death every 2 minutes falls within the latest estimates that the World Health Organisation calculated, which ranges from every minute and 22 seconds to every 2 minutes and 28 seconds.

This article originally appeared on Africa Check and we have their permission to republish.

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