The invisible burden of malaria-attributable stillbirth

Burnet Institute

31 January, 2020

Image: In 2015 there were over 207,000 stillbirths directly attributable to malaria during pregnacy, in addition to the 429,000 deaths from malaria in that year.

Burnet Institute researchers are arguing for newly available world-first estimates of stillbirths attributable to malaria to be included as part of a radical reappraisal of how the global burden of malaria is measured.

In a commentary published in the Lancet, Associate Professor Freya Fowkes, PhD student Eliza Davidson and co-authors argue the burden of malaria is being underestimated because of a failure to account for the impact of the disease in pregnancy and subsequent foetal death.

The authors have calculated the first accurate global estimates of the total number of stillbirths attributable to malaria, based on Malaria Atlas Project modelling recently published in the Lancet.

They found that up to 207,971 stillbirths worldwide in 2015 were due to malaria in pregnancy – that’s in addition to the official World Health Organization (WHO) estimate of 429,000 deaths caused by malaria that same year, the overwhelming majority in sub-Saharan Africa.

“By ignoring stillbirths, we are underestimating malaria mortality by up to 30 per cent,” said Ms Davidson. “That’s a huge disparity.”

“Now that we have this data available, it needs to be incorporated to give a clearer, more accurate picture of the global burden of malaria to inform planning and priorities for the elimination of the disease.”

The authors’ research showed that even under the assumption that all malaria in pregnancy is treated and resolved, there were still 126,109 malaria-attributable stillbirths globally in 2015.

Associate Professor Fowkes said this figure indicates the failure of current strategies, which typically do not start until the mother-to-be is already pregnant.

“It reinforces the urgent need for more effective prevention and intervention strategies and tools for malaria in pregnancy, strategies which are being advanced through the multidisciplinary maternal and child health and malaria elimination program at the Burnet Institute,“ Associate Professor Fowkes said.

The Lancet article, co-authored by researchers from Melbourne University, Oxford University and Mahidol University in Thailand, urges policy makers and funding agents to play an active role in helping to achieve WHO and UNICEF’s Every Newborn Action Plan to end preventable stillbirths by 2035.

According to the latest WHO World Malaria Report, there were an estimated 405,000 deaths from malaria globally in 2018, compared with 416,000 estimated deaths the previous year, and 585,000 in 2010.

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Contact Details

For more information in relation to this news article, please contact:

Professor Freya J.I. Fowkes

Deputy Program Director, Maternal and Child Health




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