STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have news now in the fight against malaria. Up until now, there have only been two major tools in that fight - spraying for mosquitoes and bed nets. Now, in western and central Africa, there's another new technique that's being praised as a potentially major development. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Issaka Sagara, who's with the Malaria Research and Training Center at the University of Bamako, says malaria dominates the healthcare system in Mali.
ISSAKA SAGARA: Malaria is the number-one disease in Mali.
BEAUBIEN: But most of those malaria cases happen only during the rainy season, from August to November.
SAGARA: If you can target this season, where the most transmission will be ongoing, then you really can control malaria.
BEAUBIEN: And this is the big change in the fight against malaria in this part of Africa. The idea here is very similar to the way Westerners use anti-malarial drugs, but the medications tourists take are far too expensive for most Africans. They're also too toxic to take year round. And in much of Africa, the idea of trying to deliver preventative malaria drugs constantly through already overburdened health systems seems impossible.
But in 2012, the World Health Organization said this type of a system could protect children from the most severe forms of malaria, even if only used for a few months out of the year. So that's what's happening now in 11 countries across the Sahel, and it's produced remarkable results.
In Senegal, the technique is credited with slashing the number of malaria deaths among children under 5 by 79 percent in just one year. Sagara, from Mali, says the best tool would be a highly effective vaccine. But short of that, he's very excited about this seasonal distribution of anti-malarials.
SAGARA: I will say that this is the most efficient strategy we have to control malaria today.
BEAUBIEN: As effective as this is, this is still a huge undertaking. At the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene's the annual meeting this week in Atlanta, Jean-Bosco Ouedraogo talked about the difficulties Burkina Faso has faced. Ouedraogo says getting these drugs into every village is not an easy task. First, the health workers have to identify all the children who are under the age of 5.
JEAN-BOSCO OUEDRAOGO: And then use a door-to-door distribution strategy to give all the drugs to the children during each round for the transmission season.
BEAUBIEN: The kids take three pills - one each day over the first three days of the month. Then, the next month, the health workers return with three more pills. And this goes on for four months. And Ouedraogo says, at times, the health care workers have run out of medicine.
OUEDRAOGO: The big challenge is how to get, every year, the drugs because sometimes it is difficult to get it.
BEAUBIEN: Despite all this, he believes this new tool in the fight against malaria will have a lasting impact in his country.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Atlanta.
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