Health officials have been vastly underestimating the number of people who die of malaria every year, because they've largely ignored its adult victims, according to a new report published in the Lancet. The actual death toll for 2010, according to its estimate, was 1.24 million, nearly twice the World Health Organization's estimate of 655,000. The big difference: The study's count includes 524,000 people age 5 or older (that's 42% of victims), while the WHO only counted 91,000, or 14% of victims.
Conventional wisdom has long held that adults rarely die of malaria. "Being twice as big as people thought is pretty important," the study's lead author tells the Washington Post, predicting the numbers will prove controversial. Indeed, some experts believe the estimate is too high, with one saying adult illnesses may be diagnosed as malaria because it's familiar to practitioners, and the WHO is downplaying the discrepancy in the numbers. Asked if the numbers would affect malaria relief efforts, an official with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria replied, "That's a billion-dollar question, literally." (Read more study stories.)