Article Critical of World Health Organization’s Anti-Malaria Approach

Amir Attaran, who has been highly critical of donor organization’s approach to malaria control, published an opinion article in The Lancet in January arguing that “institutional inadequacies” in the World Health Organization’s anti-malaria efforts impede the organization’s ability to save lives from the disease.

Specifically, Attaran argues that by favoring expensive traditional malaria therapies over newer, more effective — but more expensive –treatments such as artemisinin combination therapies, the WHO is guilty of the equivalent of “medical malpractice.”

Attaran notes that WHO itself concedes that the drugs it using in Africa are growing increasingly ineffective,

WHO now writes of “global malaria control . . . being threatened on an unprecedented scale” by continued use of outdated drugs such as chloroquine, which is ineffective in most parts of Africa, and sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine, which is becoming so. For example, in East Africa, surveillance and clinical trial data show that up to 64% of patients given chloroquine and 45% given sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine will fail treatment, and those figures are climbing.

When treatment failure becomes so frequent, malaria deaths rise greatly, especially in children. In West Africa (Senegal), results of a 12-year community-based study showed that the onset of chloroquine resistance at least doubled childhood malaria death risk, and in some sites, increased it up to 11-fold in the youngest children. In East and southern Africa, the proportion of children dying from malaria doubled as chloroquine and later sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine resistance took hold from the 1980s to the 1990s, even as deaths from other causes declined. Elsewhere in Africa, chloroquine resistance increased the proportion of admissions to hospital and deaths from malaria by two-fold to four-fold.

Moreover, Attaran argues,

The superiority of ACT is now so established that of the five treatments WHO recommends for drug resistant P falciparum malaria, four are ACTs (the other is a “short-term solution” for countries that cannot use ACT immediately).3 ACT is now the preferred policy for WHO and the Roll Back Malaria campaign as a whole:

“Recently WHO has formulated policy that elevates combination drug therapy to preferred first therapy for all malaria infections in areas where P falciparum is the predominant infecting species of malaria. Combination therapy (CT) with formulations containing an artemisinin compound (ACT) is the policy standard . . .”22

However, WHO violates its own policy standard regularly. Most African countries reluctantly cling to chloroquine, sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine, or the insignificantly better combination of chloroquine and sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine, because ACT is ten times more expensive and, therefore, unaffordable to them.2,23 When those same countries seek financial aid from the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria (GFATM) to purchase ACT, they are forcefully pressured out of it by governments such as the USA, whose aid officials say that ACT is too expensive and “not ready for prime time”.24 WHO acquiesces to this pressure to cut costs, and despite a policy that names ACT as the gold standard of treatment, WHO signs its approval when GFATM funds cheap but ineffective chloroquine or sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine to treat P falciparum malaria.

. . .

These are very obvious errors of scientific and medical judgment; and although WHO might be expected to spearhead a corrective intervention, the evidence suggests that it instead exacerbated the errors. In Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda, WHO’s country representatives reviewed the funding proposals in which inappropriate drugs were sought–and signed their approval. Those signatures follow a declaration that WHO “has participated throughout the . . . process” of developing the proposal to GFATM, and that it “reviewed the final proposal and [is] happy to support it”.31-33

These decisions are indefensible. For WHO and GFATM to provide chloroquine and sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine treatments in the countries we cite as examples at least wastes precious international aid money, and at most, kills patients who have malaria. If one takes the measured increase in childhood malaria mortality that follows P falciparum drug resistance (two-fold to 11-fold) and extrapolates it to populations in which GFATM is funding chloroquine or sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine despite resistance (more than 100 million people in the four countries we name), then at least tens of thousands of children die every year as a direct result. Those patients who survive will often become much sicker and require retreatment, at some further expense of time and money. We do not exaggerate to state that, based on the outcomes, there is no ethical or legal difference that separates them from conduct otherwise condemned as medical malpractice (compare the case in which a doctor or pharmacist who, like these institutions, knowingly furnished treatments that failed perhaps 80% of the time, while withholding the alternatives as “too expensive”).

WHO responded with a letter to Lancet saying that it does encourage use of ACT, but that its high cost has hampered efforts to distribute it in Africa,

Although progress is encouraging, there are still major challenges to the adoption of ACTs, especially sustainable financing. Although with growing demand a price decrease can be expected in the coming years, the cost of growing the raw ingredient, Artemisia annua, means that ACTs will remain relatively expensive. Governments need to trust that sustainable funding from the Global Fund and other sources will be available before they can make the commitment–of up to US$2 per head per year–of switching to ACTs. WHO and its partners are developing a new mechanism to facilitate access to quality medicines and other products for malaria control. WHO will continue to work with the public and private sectors, and major institutions such as the Global Fund, to make ACTs more widely available through lowered costs, increased access, and technical cooperation.

The bigger problem is that so little money is devoted worldwide to fighting malaria.


WHO, the Global Fund, and medical malpractice in malaria treatment. Amir Attaran, et al, The Lancet 2004; 363: 237-40.

Response to accusations of medical malpractice by WHO and the Global Fund. Fatoumata Nafo-Traoré, The Lancet 2004; 363.

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