The Country is Certified Malaria-Free by the World Health Organization. Malaria has plagued populations all over the world for almost five thousand years, claiming millions of lives. It was endemic on all continents in the 1950’s. Since then, it has been eradicated in Europe and Northern America. Now, Mesoamerica is also heading towards elimination.
Belize has just achieved a major milestone in public health: this June 21, it was certified malaria-free by the World Health Organization (WHO) after 3 years without autochthonous cases. This is a significant accomplishment that reflects the hard work and dedication of many individuals and organizations. It is also a testament to the power of collaboration and determination in achieving public health goals and, therefore, improving lives in the region.
This remarkable achievement, largely due to the government and people of Belize, its health workers, and communities, must be sustained to maintain this malaria-free status and avoid the reintroduction of this deadly disease.
Why malaria must be eliminated
Malaria is a life-threatening disease caused by a parasite that spreads from human to human by some types of mosquitoes. It is mainly found in tropical countries, and the disease is preventable and curable. Infants, children under five years, pregnant women, travelers, and people with HIV / AIDS are at higher risk of severe infection.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, there were over 600,000 malaria cases in 2021, claiming 334 lives. Each year, the estimated number of malaria deaths globally stands above 600,000 and there are 250 million cases worldwide. Half of the world’s population is at risk of malaria.
Beyond these figures, malaria also has an enormous socio-economic impact on individuals, families, communities, and nations. Malaria is a disease of the most vulnerable: the very young and the poor. It keeps households in poverty, impairs learning, reduces productivity through lost workdays and diminished job performance, and discourages domestic and foreign investment and tourism. At the macroeconomic level, each 10% reduction in malaria incidence is associated with an average rise of 0.3% in GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita and faster GDP growth.
The challenge of the re-establishment of the transmission in Belize
Although there have been no reports of imported, introduced, or indigenous cases in Belize since 2019 and no reports of relapsed or induced cases of malaria since 2013, surveillance must be continued to detect, diagnose, treat, and investigate any suspected malaria cases, especially in the areas bordering countries where malaria is still present. Historically, the districts of Toledo and Stann Creek in the south and Cayo in the center have had the highest burden of disease, and their population is still considered at some risk.
Supported by the Regional Malaria Elimination Initiative, rapid diagnostic tests were introduced and have been used throughout the country since the end of 2020. Microscopy technicians are conducting diagnosis in all districts. During 2022, a total of 20,907 persons were screened for malaria as part of the country’s surveillance efforts.
Belize also conducts continuous training to improve surveillance. Furthermore, the country implements an integrated approach to vector control, involving the use of indoor residual spraying (IRS), long-lasting insecticide-treated nets (LLINs), and environmental management.
The IDB, as the administrator of the Regional Malaria Elimination Initiative, remains fully committed to the elimination of malaria in Mesoamerica
The Regional Malaria Elimination Initiative (RMEI) is a public-private alliance administered by the IDB and financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Global Fund, the Carlos Slim Foundation, and nine countries in the region. The work is coordinated with the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO/WHO), the Council of Ministers of Central America and the Dominican Republic (COMISCA), the Mesoamerica Project, and the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI).
The approach is to strengthen Diagnosis, Treatment, Investigation and Response (DTI-R), as well as to improve epidemiological surveillance systems to detect new cases and treat them in a timely manner.
Now that elimination has been achieved in Belize and El Salvador, RMEI continues to support the other countries in Mesoamerica on their way to becoming free from malaria, therefore improving the lives of their populations.