Study: Malaria deaths dramatically undercounted

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The World Health Organization is standing by its estimates of malaria deaths following an article in the Lancet last week suggesting that far more die from the disease than previously thought. Researchers used “verbal autopsies” — talking to family members and associates to try to ascertain the cause of death — of 122,000 deaths in 6,671 randomly selected regions of India from 2001 to 2003. They attributed 3.6 percent (2,681) of the 75,342 deaths of Indians aged from 1 month to 70 years to malaria, suggesting that about 205,000 malaria deaths occur in the country each year.

The Lancet figures are 13 times higher than the estimates from WHO, which says there are just 15,000 malaria deaths in India each year, and 100,000 adult malaria deaths annually worldwide. (Most victims are children). “The new study uses verbal autopsy method, which is suitable only for diseases with distinctive symptoms and not for malaria,” WHO’s India representative Nata Menabde told The Wall Street Journal.

WHO said “it takes into account only confirmed cases of malaria and surveys those using health-care facilities,” the Journal reported — but the Lancet study estimated that 90 percent of the malaria deaths were in rural areas and 86 percent were not in any health-care facility.

“This is not a super-scientific study, but it’s an approximation, and probably better than what you normally get in rural India,” says Dr. Ross. “I find it incredible that with over one-million deaths from malaria worldwide, that only 100,000 adults die from it, as the WHO estimates.” ACSH has called for resumed use of indoor residual spraying of small amounts of DDT to prevent mosquito bites, repel mosquitoes, and reduce malaria deaths.