Background: The epidemiology of malaria makes surveillance-based methods of estimating its disease burden problematic. Cartographic approaches have provided alternative malaria burden estimates, but there remains widespread misunderstanding about their derivation and fidelity. The aims of this study are to present a new cartographic technique and its application for deriving global clinical burden estimates of Plasmodium falciparum malaria for 2007, and to compare these estimates and their likely precision with those derived under existing surveillance-based approaches.
Methods and findings: In seven of the 87 countries endemic for P. falciparum malaria, the health reporting infrastructure was deemed sufficiently rigorous for case reports to be used verbatim. In the remaining countries, the mapped extent of unstable and stable P. falciparum malaria transmission was first determined. Estimates of the plausible incidence range of clinical cases were then calculated within the spatial limits of unstable transmission. A modelled relationship between clinical incidence and prevalence was used, together with new maps of P. falciparum malaria endemicity, to estimate incidence in areas of stable transmission, and geostatistical joint simulation was used to quantify uncertainty in these estimates at national, regional, and global scales. Combining these estimates for all areas of transmission risk resulted in 451 million (95% credible interval 349-552 million) clinical cases of P. falciparum malaria in 2007. Almost all of this burden of morbidity occurred in areas of stable transmission. More than half of all estimated P. falciparum clinical cases and associated uncertainty occurred in India, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Myanmar (Burma), where 1.405 billion people are at risk. Recent surveillance-based methods of burden estimation were then reviewed and discrepancies in national estimates explored. When these cartographically derived national estimates were ranked according to their relative uncertainty and replaced by surveillance-based estimates in the least certain half, 98% of the global clinical burden continued to be estimated by cartographic techniques.
Conclusions and significance: Cartographic approaches to burden estimation provide a globally consistent measure of malaria morbidity of known fidelity, and they represent the only plausible method in those malaria-endemic countries with nonfunctional national surveillance. Unacceptable uncertainty in the clinical burden of malaria in only four countries confounds our ability to evaluate needs and monitor progress toward international targets for malaria control at the global scale. National prevalence surveys in each nation would reduce this uncertainty profoundly. Opportunities for further reducing uncertainty in clinical burden estimates by hybridizing alternative burden estimation procedures are also evaluated.