Washington, Feb 26 : The first global malaria risk map to be developed in forty years has revealed that about 35 percent of the world's population is at risk of contracting malaria, but many people are at a lower risk than previously thought, raising hope that the disease could be seriously reduced or eliminated in parts of the world.
Researchers at Oxford University and the Kenyan Medical Research Institute, including a scientist at the University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute spent three years producing the Malaria Atlas Project, or MAP.
Through the map, they found that 2.37 billion people were at risk of contracting malaria from Plasmodium faciparum, the most deadly malaria parasite for humans transmitted through the bites of infected Anopheles mosquitoes.
Out of that number, about 1 billion people live under a much lower risk of infection than was assumed under the previous historical maps.
Less than expected risk extends across Central and South America, Asia and even parts of Africa, the continent where malaria kills a large number of its victims and where risk has historically been classified as universally high.
"This gives some hope of pursuing malaria elimination because the prevalence isn't as universally high as many people suppose," said David Smith, a UF associate professor of zoology and a co-author of the paper.
"It's reasonable to think we can reduce or interrupt transmission in many places, but the prospects for success will improve if we make plans that are based on good information about malaria's distribution," he added.
To create the MAP, researchers compiled information from national health statistics, tourist travel advisories, climate, mosquito vectors and surveys of malaria infection in nearly 5,000 communities and 87 countries.
The project also included information about how climatic conditions affect mosquito life cycles, and thus the likelihood of active transmission.
According to researchers, the new map is important in part because it offers hope that malaria could be eliminated in certain areas using currently available tools, such as bed nets treated with insecticide that kills mosquitoes.
They further said that the project will also help donors and international agencies target investments in control measures where they are most likely to achieve the biggest gains.
"Making data and maps more accessible on the worldwide web is a large part of the MAP's philosophy of getting the science accessed, critiqued and used by a much wider range of users," said the lead author of the study, Carlos Guerra, of the University of Oxford.
The findings appear in the online edition of the open-access medical journal, PLoS Medicine.