The world has made impressive progress against malaria in the past 10 years, increasing optimism that an end to the killer mosquito-borne disease could be in sight, a World Health Organization-backed report said on Monday.
Deaths from malaria have fallen by an estimated 38 percent in the past 10 years with 43 countries - 11 of them in Africa - cutting malaria cases or deaths by 50 percent, reversing the previous decade's trend and saving more than a million lives.
The progress - partly due to a substantial increase in funding for fighting malaria - means deaths from the disease could be brought down to near zero by the end of 2015, the report by the Roll Back Malaria (RBM) partnership said.
The WHO, which helped set up the RBM partnership, has also said the world can stop malaria deaths by 2015 if massive investment is made to ramp up control measures, but this is seen by some experts as an ambitious target.
RBM also aims to reduce global malaria cases by 75 percent by the end of 2015 from the levels seen in 2000, and eliminate malaria in 10 more countries.
Total eradication of the parasitic disease, which is spread through the bites of infected mosquitoes and threatens around half the world's population, is still a long way off. Some think it could take another 40 to 50 years.
"The results of the past decade exceed what anyone could have predicted and prove that malaria control is working," Robert Newman, director of WHO's global malaria program, said in a statement released alongside the report.
According to the WHO, the number deaths from malaria worldwide dropped to 781,000 in 2009 from nearly a million in 2000. But there are still around 225 million cases a year and the disease remains endemic in 106 countries.
Malaria can damage the nervous system, kidneys and liver and severe cases can kill. Most malaria deaths are in Africa, where a child dies from the disease every 45 seconds.
The RBM report found that international funding for malaria had increased more than 15-fold since 2003, jumping from 62 million pounds ($98.5 million) a year then to 93 million pounds ($148 million) a year by 2010. Certain donor countries such as Britain, France and the United States had also stepped up contributions, the report noted.
"We are light years away from where we were 10 years ago," said Awa Coll-Seck, RBM's executive director.
She said this progress was partly down to the development of new tools such as insecticide-treated mosquito nets, indoor spraying strategies and more effective anti-malarial medicines, but also because of "vastly improved policies, financing, and strategies" and better international coordination.
Yet despite impressive gains, the RBM report said many people at risk of malaria still did not have good enough access to treatment and prevention options, such as insecticide treated nets, indoor spraying, proper diagnostic testing, and effective drugs, including drugs to treat and prevent malaria in pregnant women.
Progress is also being threatened by the emergence of insecticide-resistant mosquitoes, and of malaria parasites resistant to artemisinin, a key component of the most effective anti-malaria drug combinations.
"There is more to be done to address these issues, but with appropriate commitments, the gains can accrue rapidly," the report said.
The RBM partnership is a global health group set up in 1988 by the WHO, the United Nations children's fund UNICEF, the World Bank and others to coordinate the fight against malaria.