BACKGROUND: Substantial global progress in the control of malaria in recent years has led to increased commitment to its potential elimination. Whether this is possible in high transmission areas of sub-Saharan Africa remains unclear. Zanzibar represents a unique case study of such attempt, where modern tools and strategies for malaria treatment and vector control have been deployed since 2003.
METHODS: We have studied temporal trends of comprehensive malariometric indices in two districts with over 100,000 inhabitants each. The analyses included triangulation of data from annual community-based cross-sectional surveys, health management information systems, vital registry and entomological sentinel surveys.
RESULTS: The interventions, with sustained high-community uptake, were temporally associated with a major malaria decline, most pronounced between 2004 and 2007 and followed by a sustained state of low transmission. In 2015, the Plasmodium falciparum community prevalence of 0.43% (95% CI 0.23-0.73) by microscopy or rapid diagnostic test represented 96% reduction compared with that in 2003. The P. falciparum and P. malariae prevalence by PCR was 1.8% (95% CI 1.3-2.3), and the annual P. falciparum incidence was estimated to 8 infections including 2.8 clinical episodes per 1000 inhabitants. The total parasite load decreased over 1000-fold (99.9%) between 2003 and 2015. The incidence of symptomatic malaria at health facilities decreased by 94% with a trend towards relatively higher incidence in age groups > 5 years, a more pronounced seasonality and with reported travel history to/from Tanzania mainland as a higher risk factor. All-cause mortality among children < 5 years decreased by 72% between 2002 and 2007 mainly following the introduction of artemisinin-based combination therapies whereas the main reduction in malaria incidence followed upon the vector control interventions from 2006. Human biting rates decreased by 98% with a major shift towards outdoor biting by Anopheles arabiensis.
CONCLUSIONS: Zanzibar provides new evidence of the feasibility of reaching uniquely significant and sustainable malaria reduction (pre-elimination) in a previously high endemic region in sub-Saharan Africa. The data highlight constraints of optimistic prognostic modelling studies. New challenges, mainly with outdoor transmission, a large asymptomatic parasite reservoir and imported infections, require novel tools and reoriented strategies to prevent a rebound effect and achieve elimination.