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Malaria: One of the leading causes of child deaths, but progress is possible and you can contribute to it

Our World in Data presents the data and research to make progress against the world’s largest problems.This article draws on data and research discus

Our World in Data presents the data and research to make progress against the world’s largest problems.
This article draws on data and research discussed in our entry on Malaria.

  • Figures for 2020 according to the WHO: http://www.who.int/malaria/en/

  • The WHO estimates that in 2020 (latest data, as of writing) 77% of all deaths were in children younger than 5 years old. The IHME’s Global Burden of Disease also estimates that the majority of malaria deaths are in children younger than 5 years. According to their research the share of children younger than 5 among malaria victims fell slightly over the course of the last generation, from 66% in 1990 to 55% in 2019. Here is their data: https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/malaria-deaths-by-age

  • These are the WHO estimates and are calculated based on the two previously cited statistics: 627,000*0.77=482,790.

    To not suggest that we have a very precise knowledge of the number of children that die from malaria I have rounded the number from 482,790 to ‘about half a million’.

    The estimates of the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) – published in their Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study – are different: 643,000 malaria deaths in 2019; 356,000 of them are children younger than five. We have followed up with researchers in this field, but were not able to fully understand why the estimates from the IHME differ in their age-composition from the WHO estimates. To be on the conservative side I am relying on the estimates from the WHO throughout this text, but to provide perspective I also reference the IHME wherever relevant.

    For more detail on this data see our entry on malaria.

  • Alphonse Laveran discovered already in 1880 that the Plasmodium parasite is the cause for malaria. But all earlier attempts to develop vaccines were unsuccessful. Malaria vaccines such as SPf66 were insufficiently effective and until recently none of the scientific efforts led to a licensed vaccine. For an overview see Adrian V. S. Hill (2011) – Vaccines against malaria. In Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2011 Oct 12; 366(1579): 2806–2814. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2011.0091. 

    This has possibly changed with the malaria vaccine RTS,S, the world’s first licensed malaria vaccine, which has been approved by European regulators in 2015. See RTS,S Clinical Trials Partnership (2015) – Efficacy and safety of RTS,S/AS01 malaria vaccine with or without a booster dose in infants and children in Africa: final results of a phase 3, individually randomised, controlled trial. In The Lancet, Volume 386, ISSUE 9988, P31-45, July 04, 2015. 

    Recent advances in mRNA vaccines – spurred by the COVID pandemic – seem promising also for the prospect of a vaccine against malaria. But it is certainly still a long way to go until a malaria vaccine is widely available.

  • On the cause of Oliver Cromwell’s death see the FAQs at OliverCromwell.org, on Friedrich Schiller see Bayerischer Rundfunk here, on Abraham Lincoln see ‘The Physical Lincoln’. Several popes also died of the disease as malaria was very prevalent in Italy until recently. 

    It should however be noted that it is not always possible to diagnose the causes of death of historical figures. The claim that the German renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer died from malaria is for example disputed by Seitz, H. (2010) – “Do der gelb fleck ist … ” Dürers Malaria, eine Fehldiagnose. Wien Klin Wochenschr 122, 10–13 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00508-010-1432-z

  • See the publication Simon I Hay, Carlos A Guerra, Andrew J Tatem, Abdisalan M Noor, and Robert W Snow (2004) – The global distribution and population at risk of malaria: past, present, and future. In The Lancet Infectious Diseases 2004 June; 4(6): 327–336. DOI: 10.1016/S1473-3099(04)01043-6. 

    The historical mapping of the prevalence of malaria is based on the pioneering work of Lysenko in the 1960s: Lysenko AJ, Semashko IN. Geography of malaria (1968) – A medico-geographic profile of an ancient disease. In: Lebedew AW, editor. Itogi Nauki: Medicinskaja Geografija. Academy of Sciences, USSR; Moscow: 1968. pp. 25–146. Lysenko AJ, Beljaev AE (1969) – An analysis of the geographical distribution of Plasmodium ovale. Bull. World Health Organization; 40:383–94.

    I have recreated that map and written about this research in Roser (2019) – Malaria was common across half the world – since then it has been eliminated in many regions. In Our World in Data.

  • That malaria was the most common cause of death was even suggested in a Nature article: Whitfield (2002) wrote “Malaria may have killed half of all the people that ever lived”. 

    Whitfield, J. Portrait of a serial killer. Nature (2002). https://doi.org/10.1038/news021001-6

    But while there is obviously no hard evidence to establish or refute this claim other epidemiologists were skeptical that this is true. Tim Harford investigated the claim in an episode of the BBC’s “More or Less”: Have Mosquitoes Killed Half the World?

  • See “Box 4.1 Malaria-related mortality in the 20th century” in the World Health Organization’s World Health Report (1999).

  • Bhatt et al. (2015) – The effect of malaria control on Plasmodium falciparum in Africa between 2000 and 2015. Nature 526, 207–211 (08 October 2015) doi:10.1038/nature15535
    The focus of the study was Africa, where – as the chart shows – most of the recent reduction was achieved.

  • Citation: Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), Malaria Atlas Project. Global Malaria Incidence, Prevalence, and Mortality Geospatial Estimates 2000-2019. Seattle, United States of America: Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), 2020. https://doi.org/10.6069/CG0J-2R97 

    Shown is the mortality rate due to plasmodium falciparum – direct link to the interactive maps as published by the IHME http://ihmeuw.org/5dhp 

    For the background see: Weiss, D. J., Lucas, T. C. D., Nguyen, M., Nandi, A. K., Bisanzio, D., Battle, K. E., Cameron, E., Twohig, K. A., Pfeffer, D. A., Rozier, J. A., Gibson, H. S., Rao, P. C., Casey, D., Bertozzi-Villa, A., Collins, E. L., Dalrymple, U., Gray, N., Harris, J. R., Howes, R. E., … Gething, P. W. (2019) – Mapping the global prevalence, incidence, and mortality of Plasmodium falciparum, 2000–17: A spatial and temporal modelling study. In The Lancet, 394(10195), 322–331. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(19)31097-9

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