Sri Lanka on Tuesday became the third and most populous country in Asia to be declared malaria-free by the World Health Organization.
Only the Maldives and Singapore have also been declared free of the disease in the region but both countries have less than a quarter of Sri Lanka’s 21 million population.
The island nation’s feat comes with a backdrop of a three-decade civil war and limited resources, and puts it ahead of its neighbors India, Thailand and Bangladesh.
“Sri Lanka’s achievement is truly remarkable. In the mid-20th century it was among the most malaria-affected countries, but now it is malaria-free,” WHO Regional Director, Dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh said. “This ….signifies the great leaps that can be made when targeted action is taken.”
Sri Lanka began its anti-malaria campaign in 1911 just ahead of the disease peaking at 1.5 million cases and almost achieved malaria elimination in 1963, when just 17 cases of the disease were recorded but funding was diverted and malaria took hold again. It took five decades to recover the ground lost against the disease.
By 2006, the country recorded less than 1,000 cases of malaria per year and since October 2012, the indigenous cases were down to zero. For the past three-and-a-half years, no locally transmitted cases have been recorded, Sri Lanka’s health ministry said.
“Our biggest challenge is to ensure monitoring. International funding for Sri Lanka’s anti-malaria campaign ends in 2018 and after that the full financial responsibility falls on the government,” said former Director of Sri Lanka’s Anti-Malaria Campaign Dr. Risintha Premaratne.
According to the latest estimates from WHO, there were 214 million new cases of malaria and 438,000 deaths from the illness worldwide in 2015. The African region accounted for most, or 88%, of new cases followed by the Southeast Asia at 10%, and the eastern Mediterranean at 2%.
In Southeast Asia as many as 1.3 billion people are estimated to be at risk from the disease, according the World Malaria Report 2015 published by WHO.
Sri Lanka’s government has assured continued support and its cabinet has already approved a 10% increase each year for current anti-malaria funds.
“We are very proud of this achievement and it should be dedicated to our exceptional medical professionals,” said Sri Lanka’s Health Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne.
Malaria cases are falling worldwide. Between 2000 and 2015, new malaria cases fell by 37% globally, and by 42% in Africa. During this same period, malaria mortality rates fell by 60% globally and by 66% in the African region, according to the WHO.
The WHO has targeted eliminating malaria in at least 35 countries more countries by 2030 with India and Indonesia expected to meet the target. However, the WHO said annual funding for malaria will need to triple over the next 15 years, from the current $ 2.5 billion to $ 8.7 billion by 2030 to achieve this goal.