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Medical Action Myanmar successfully eliminated falciparum malaria in Eastern Myanmar within six years, employing 172 community health workers for early diagnosis and treatment. Their approach, integrating basic health services with malaria care, led to a rapid reduction in both falciparum and vivax malaria cases. This cost-effective strategy challenges traditional, labor-intensive methods, emphasizing the importance of community health workers in achieving malaria elimination in challenging, remote areas.

Rapid diagnostic test (RDT) positivity rate of P. falciparum malaria (including mixed infections) following the introduction of community health workers (CHWs) between 2011 and 2018. Figure courtesy of PLOS Med. Zaw AS, Win ESS, Smithuis FM et al. © Zaw AS, Win ESS, Smithuis FM et al.
Rapid diagnostic test (RDT) positivity rate of P. falciparum malaria (including mixed infections) following the introduction of community health workers (CHWs) between 2011 and 2018. Figure courtesy of PLOS Med.

22 Dec 2023, Yangon, Myanmar – To counter the threat posed by worsening artemisinin and partner drug resistance in Plasmodium falciparum malaria, the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) countries have agreed to aim for elimination of falciparum malaria by 2025. This goal has been elusive as malaria is now prevalent predominantly in remote and difficult to access communities, mainly in Myanmar, which has the majority of all the reported malaria cases in the region. Access to health care services for these communities is very difficult.

Medical Action Myanmar introduced 172 community health workers (CHWs), serving a population of 236,340 people, to deliver early diagnosis and treatment for malaria in hard-to-reach communities in Mon state, East Myanmar. Within two years of starting the programme malaria incidence had decreased substantially, and other causes of febrile illness were now dominating consultations. An integrated basic healthcare package was then added to address this changing pattern of needs.

There was a rapid, sustained reduction in the incidence of both falciparum and vivax malaria. Falciparum malaria was eliminated within 6 years, and vivax malaria reduced markedly, say researchers in a study published in PLoS Medicine.

“Eliminating falciparum malaria has been our objective all along, so achieving that goal is an enormous achievement. That it has been done in 6 years is exceptional,” said University of Oxford Prof Frank Smithuis, study co-author and Head of the Myanmar-Oxford Clinical Research Unit (MOCRU), Yangon.

“This project showed that malaria elimination is achievable by simply providing community-based diagnosis and treatment. Adding  basic health services with the malaria services was key in getting local populations with a fever to visit the CHW, where they could be tested for malaria, and treated if necessary or receive treatment for other diseases if the malaria test was negative.”

Other currently recommended malaria elimination approaches, including weekly fever screening and frequent entomological surveys are expensive, labour-intensive, and they are generally not feasible in these remote areas. This study suggests that they are not needed.

“This is a great example of an effective malaria elimination programme, one that should be an example for the entire GMS – and beyond,” said Prof Arjen Dondorp, Regional Artemisinin-resistance Initiative (RAI) coordinator and Head of Malaria at the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit (MORU). “It’s cost-effective, realistic, aligned with GMS conditions. With an uncertain financial future for regional malaria control activities, it is important to identify the core malaria control elements that must be sustained to complete elimination.”

“No one thought that falciparum malaria elimination could be achieved in Eastern Myanmar, but this and other recent studies showed that it could be done, and they emphasise the critical value of supporting community health workers to diagnose and treat malaria. In low transmission settings such as Mon state this was enough to eliminate falciparum malaria in six years,” said University of Oxford Prof Sir Nicholas White, a study co-author based at MORU in Bangkok.

Supported by Access to Health Fund, The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and Medical Action Myanmar (MAM), the malaria research was funded by the Wellcome Trust (UK).

Paper: Successful elimination of falciparum malaria following the introduction of community-based health workers in Eastern Myanmar: A retrospective analysis. Zaw AS, Win ESS, Yan SW, Thein KS, Verma V, McLean ARD, Kyaw TT, White NJ, Smithuis FM. PLoS Med. 2023 Nov 30;20(11):e1004318. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1004318. PMID: 38033155.

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