PAPUA NEW GUINEA, 23 JULY 2012 - Dr Robert Newman, WHO's Director of the Global Malaria Programme, took in his first WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific country malaria programme when he made a six-day visit to Papua New Guinea earlier this month.

Accompanied by Dr Paison Dakulala, Papua New Guinea Deputy Secretary of Health, as well as WHO Representative Dr William Adu-Krow and other WHO staff, Dr Newman visited health facilities and talked to malaria stakeholders in the capital, Port Moresby, as well as in Madang province.

Dr Newman says he was delighted by the latest figures on malaria in Papua New Guinea, based on a report of the PNG Institute of Medical Research, which showed a major reduction in malaria prevalence.

In a survey conducted in 17 of 20 provinces between November 2010 and August 2011, just 6.8% of all people surveyed at the community level were found to be infected with malaria parasites. This compared with a prevalence of around 18% in a survey just two years earlier. Prevalence in children under five fell from 24% to 7% during the same period. The survey was the second of its kind conducted in Papua New Guinea during re-intensified malaria control efforts supported by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

"These results show what can be achieved even in difficult circumstances when there is the right commitment," Dr Newman says.

The decrease in prevalence coincided with a significant increase in the usage of long-lasting insecticidal bednets, but preceded the implementation of a new artemisinin-based combination therapy protocol. Ownership of long-lasting insecticidal nets increased from 65% in 2008-2009 to 84% in 2010-2011, while estimated usage by children under five years old grew from 39% to 53%.

The improved availability of bed nets was due principally to the efforts of the Port Moresby-based Rotarians Against Malaria (RAM), which distributed more than 1.4 million bednets in 18 months with the support of the Global Fund. This was achieved despite Rotarians Against Malaria staff having to face difficult topography and limited infrastructure, with some roads closed due to landslides and bridge collapses.

Although the latest malaria prevalence figures are heartening, experts cautioned that progress remains fragile. They underscored the need to maintain universal access to malaria prevention measures such as long-lasting insecticidal nets, while embracing the new WHO initiative entitled "T3: Test. Treat. Track", which calls for countries to ensure that every suspected case of malaria receives a diagnostic test, that all confirmed cases are treated with a quality assured antimalarial medicine, and that the disease is tracked in a timely and accurate surveillance system.

With malaria rapid tests now being deployed and the new artemisinin-based combination therapy also being scaled up, the experts said they are optimistic that the malaria burden in Papua New Guinea will continue to decline - subject, of course, to good surveillance and sustained control measures.