Malaria in India: Facts from the Field

The World Health Organization (WHO) attributes about 15,000 deaths in India to malaria. However, according to reports published in science journals like The Lancet, the number could be as high as 13 times the figure mentioned by WHO! The researchers and scientists who have conducted the survey on behalf of The Lancet mention that they had conducted ‘verbal autopsies’ to arrive at this stupefying figure. For the uninitiated, verbal autopsies are carried out by talking to the family of the deceased and building up a report on how the patient died, what the symptoms were, etc. 

There is a reasonable point of debate on this number quoted by The Lancet. The WHO officials state that verbal autopsies are never conclusive and they cannot be considered as evidence in such an important analysis. In the course of this argument, an integral point was underlined by the officials. Senior scientists at WHO categorically stated that the symptoms of malaria are not exclusive to this disease. That is why knowing about the patient verbally cannot be considered irrefutable evidence. This brings to light the fact that at the grassroots level, any kind of fever can be considered as a potential malaria case.

The usual symptoms of malaria, like fever, body ache and excessive perspiration are also the tip of the iceberg. A malaria infected person needs immediate medical aid, something that hospitals and health clinics in rural India are not always equipped to handle. It is true that malaria is not reported to be of epidemic proportions in the country anymore, but it is still a potent threat to the health sector. More than the problem of the disease breaking out to accommodate mass numbers, it is the treatment, or the lack of it, that lies at the center of this discussion. Despite repeated and committed initiatives by the Government of India to eradicate malaria, the execution of the plan has not been flawless.

The officials at WHO working in India to combat and analyze the cases attributed to malaria admit that there are many patients who are not taken to a health clinic. Unreported malarial deaths are a cause for concern not just for the suffering patients but also for the sake of study. A plausible statistic cannot be drawn up without the full availability of health clinics that can take care of malaria infected patients. This is one challenge that health officials in India have to work on. Making people aware of the consequences of malaria and teaching them to read certain suggestive symptoms must be the fulcrum of the anti-malaria drive.