China is officially malaria-free, says WHO

Science & Health

China was certified today by the World Health Organization as officially free of malaria, joining a club of 40 countries globally, but only three others in the WHO Western Pacific region, that have completely eliminated the disease.

fly swatter china malaria
Illustration by Derek Zheng

China was certified today by the World Health Organization (WHO) as officially free of malaria, joining a club of 40 countries globally, but only three others in the WHO Western Pacific region, that have completely eliminated the disease.

After having gone four years with no reported cases, China applied for malaria-free certification from WHO in 2020. Inspectors from WHO visited the country in May and verified that the “chain of indigenous malaria transmission by Anopheles mosquitoes has been interrupted nationwide” — even in southwestern Yunnan, which borders three malaria-endemic countries, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam.

Back in the 1940s, China recorded as many as 30 million cases of malaria each year, and 300,000 deaths, per Science magazine. These numbers were driven down to “roughly 5,000 annually in the late 1990s,” and zero by 2017 after the implementation of strict reporting and tracking requirements for health departments.

WHO recognized two key Chinese contributions to fighting malaria, in China and around the world:

  • The breakthrough pharmaceutical discovery of “artemisinin — the core compound of artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs), the most effective antimalarial drugs available today.” This achievement by scientist Tú Yōuyōu 屠呦呦, as part of a Mao-era program to fight disease in the 1970s, earned her a Nobel Prize in 2015.
  • The early “use of insecticide-treated nets (ITNs) for the prevention of malaria, well before nets were recommended by WHO for malaria control.” Chinese tests of ITNs in the 1980s led to more than 2.4 million nets being distributed countrywide by 1988, drastically lowering malaria caseloads.

Malaria continues to affect over 200 million people every year, leading to over 400,000 deaths annually, primarily in Africa. In lower-income countries, it regularly ranks among the top 10 causes of death, though the numbers are falling, and new RNA-based vaccines in development appear to show promise to provide a more effective tool to help eradicate the disease in more countries.