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updated 12/13/2011 9:12:33 AM ET 2011-12-13T14:12:33

Health officials hope to virtually eliminate malaria deaths in the next few years — despite having failed to meet an earlier goal of cutting the disease's incidence in half by 2010.

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In a report released Tuesday by the World Health Organization, experts said they only managed to reduce malaria by 17 percent since 2000. Last year, there were about 216 million cases of malaria worldwide, with about 81 percent of those in Africa, mostly in children under five.

But those figures come with a big margin of error since WHO did not have enough data for more than two dozen African countries to accurately track malaria's spread.

Dr. Robert Newman, director of WHO's malaria program, said it is disappointing not to have reduced malaria by 50 percent by last year. But, he said, it was "truly significant progress" that the parasitic disease's death rates fell by more than one-third in Africa.

The estimated number of deaths from malaria dropped to 655,000 in 2010, 36,000 lower than in 2009.

Malaria deaths have fallen dramatically in the past decade thanks to increased aid allowing more people access to nets and medicines, but the economic slowdown threatens to curb future progress, the United Nations' health agency said.

In its annual global report on the mosquito-borne parasitic disease, the WHO said international funding for the fight against malaria rose to about $1.7 billion in 2010 and $2 billion in 2011, the highest annual amounts ever reached.

But this is still far short of the estimated $5 billion to $6 billion needed each year to achieve the WHO's target to reach zero deaths from malaria by 2015.

Newman described the current goal of cutting malaria deaths to "near zero" by the end of 2015 as "aspirational," but added that it wouldn't be accomplished unless every person at risk has access to a bed net and suspected cases are properly diagnosed and treated.

"It is unacceptable that people continue to die from malaria for lack of a $5 bed net, a 50 cent diagnostic test and a $1 anti-malarial treatment," Newman said in an email.

Some experts questioned if WHO should be setting such lofty goals, especially at a time of declining funding.

"I understand why people want these big, audacious targets, but it may undermine malaria (control) in the long term," said Richard Tren, director of the nonprofit Africa Fighting Malaria.

Health officials tried in the 1950s to eradicate malaria, but gave up about a decade later. That failure prompted donors to lose interest, allowing the disease to surge.

"It may be reckless to overreach," Tren told The Associated Press.

The financial crisis won't help matters.

The world's top funder of public health programs — the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria — recently announced it has run out of money for its next round of grants.

Dr. Tido von Schoen Angerer, an executive director at Medecins Sans Frontieres, warned the cash-flow problems at the Global Fund could mean delays in getting new bed nets and money for new treatment programs. "We really risk losing some of the hard-won (gains) in malaria control," he said.

WHO's Newman said other major donors — including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Britain and the U.S. — are not expected to trim their donations. Gates has previously called for malaria to be completely wiped out, a goal Newman says might be possible in several decades.

Malaria is endemic in more than 100 countries worldwide but can be prevented by the use of bednets and indoor spraying to keep the mosquitoes that carry the disease at bay.

It is a potentially fatal disease caused by parasites spread to people via mosquito bites. It is most serious in young children and pregnant women.

Newman said there are new tools being developed that could eventually help stop the disease, including longer lasting bed nets, a vaccine, and new medicines.

He also said more investment is needed to improve disease surveillance. For many African countries where malaria is circulating, officials use modeling estimates, not actual cases of sick patients.

"Unless we know where we still have malaria, we cannot successfully take the fight to the next level," he said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report

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