Kenya cut child deaths from malaria by more than 40 percent over five years by handing out insecticide-treated mosquito nets, UN and Kenyan officials said.
Experts hope to replicate the success throughout Africa. An estimated 700,000 to 2.7 million people die of malaria each year, 75 percent of them African children, and tens of millions of people suffer chronically from the debilitating disease, even though it is preventable and curable.
Over the past five years, Kenya gave out 13.5 million treated nets with the percentage of children sleeping under them rising to 52 percent last year, from 5 percent in 2003, the health ministry said on Thursday.
Kenya's program saved seven children for every 1,000 mosquito nets used, Health Minister Charity Ngilu said. "This is value for money," she said. "Definitely this is good investment."
The Kenyan program followed WHO guidelines that nets should be distributed free or heavily subsidized to everyone, as opposed to the earlier practice of giving children and pregnant mothers priority, the WHO said in a statement.
"We now have evidence that recent massive scaling up of malaria control interventions such as insecticide treated nets has dramatically reduced child deaths due to malaria by 44 percent in malaria risk areas," Ngilu said.
Ngilu said that her ministry's research report on Kenya's anti-malaria campaign will be published in peer reviewed journals, though she did not name them.
Sylvia Meek of the London-based Malaria Consortium said malaria among children is declining because of the nets, when in the 1990s when cases were rising.
"Such a reduction [in Kenya] is certainly highly significant and a great achievement," she said.
Arata Kochi, director of the WHO's Global Malaria Program, said Kenya should be a model for malaria prevention to be replicated throughout Africa.
"This data from Kenya ends the debate about how to deliver long-lasting insecticidal nets," Kochi said. "No longer should the safety and well-being of your family be based upon whether you are rich or poor. When these nets are easily available for every person, young or old, malaria is reduced."