Despite global gains made in reducing malaria infections, more than half the world’s population remains at risk of contracting malaria.

Today marks World Malaria Day, and according to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 212 million cases were reported worldwide in 2015, while 429000 people died.

According to the Department of Health, South Africa is affected by malaria, particularly in the high transmission season that starts in September and tapers off towards May.

The malaria-endemic provinces are Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal.

“South Africa is systematically targeting the reduction of malaria morbidity and mortality as outlined in the 2016-2020 Global Technical Strategy for Malaria,” spokesperson Popo Maja said.

“The country achieved a 54% reduction of malaria deaths last year, from 141 malaria deaths in 2015 to 42 deaths reported in 2016.”

He said this progress was due to the massive expansion of effective tools to prevent and treat malaria, such as indoor residual spraying, insecticide-treated mosquito nets, diagnostic testing and anti-malaria medicines.

The global theme for World Malaria Day is “End malaria for good”, and according to Dr Steven Mufamadi, a nanotechnology and biotechnology communicator, there are ways to eliminate malaria altogether.

“If South Africa is to achieve its goal of malaria elimination, it needs to embrace innovative technologies that could assist in malaria elimination,” Mufamadi said.

He said research institutions were exploring the use of nanotechnology to address malaria.

“Research into nanowire-based biosensors, anti­body-labelled gold nano­particles, nanoliposomes and silver nanoparticles promises to help defeat this disease.”

Mufamadi said nanotechnology offered new tools that could revolutionise the way malaria was diagnosed, screening for drug resistance, delivery of anti-malaria drugs as well as malaria prevention.

“Nanotechnology researchers are promising to develop a malaria device that will offer early diagnostics. Early detection of malaria has significant clinical ramifications - there would be less-burdensome treatments, which greatly increases the chances of clearing the infection.”

He said a team at Mintek had developed a rapid diagnostic device - a hand-held diagnostic nano-device that was user-friendly and affordable.

Mufamadi said people who had travelled to malaria-prone areas should automatically use the test as this new device would pick up malaria in the blood or saliva before symptoms appeared.

“The potential benefit to health workers in remote rural areas with limited healthcare infrastructure is immense. Furthermore, rapid diagnostics is predicted to aid in counteracting the increase in drug resistance against anti-malarials,” he said.

Another advantage of nanotechnology was that it could deliver anti-malaria drugs to the site of infection, and also minimise the side effects associated with the use of conventional anti-malarial drugs.