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Scientists have created an online global map of communities at high risk of malaria, which could prove a valuable tool for policymakers targeting resources to fight the disease.

The map links data collected by population surveys to Google Earth's online map of the world designed using satellite photographs.

It has been 40 years since the last global map of malaria risk was constructed, and scientists hope it will enable them to estimate the risk for regions lacking records by filling in the data gaps.

Details of the ongoing Malaria Atlas Project, which will be operated under principles of open access, were published in the Public Library of Science Medicine yesterday (4 December).

Co-author Bob Snow, who heads the Malaria Public Health and Epidemiology Group at the Kenya Medical Research Institute, said precise data on malaria are lacking.

"How we design malaria control and measure its impact depends on knowing how much malaria exists in a given area," he told SciDev.Net.

"[Without] an intelligent approach to global malaria control I fear there will be much wasted funding and many missed opportunities," Snow said.

Nathan Mulure, a Kenyan malaria expert, said that the maps will help identify areas of drug resistance, species of mosquitoes present and areas where outbreaks are imminent.

The researchers are currently interested in gathering additional data about malaria infections from the public health community. To facilitate communication they have translated the entire map website into Spanish and French.

They call on international health organisations, spearheaded by the World Health Organization, to advise governments — especially in Africa — on how the mapping system can be used to assist malaria control.

This comes as the UN health agency launched the Malaria Vaccine Technology Roadmap yesterday, in a new global effort to find a malaria vaccine.

The roadmap aims to develop and license a vaccine by 2015 that provides 50 per cent efficacy against the disease, and a vaccine with 80 per cent efficacy by 2025.

Link to full paper in the Public Library of Science Medicine, 3(12): e473

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