By Kate Kelland, Health and Science Correspondent
LONDON, Sept 17 (Reuters) - Death rates from malaria have plunged by 60 percent in the past 15 years, meaning more than 6 million lives have been saved - the vast majority of them African children, United Nations agencies said on Thursday.
The progress marked the "taming of an ancient disease that over the centuries has killed untold millions of people," World Health Organization (WHO) director general Margaret Chan told an audience at Britain's parliament.
In a joint WHO-UNICEF report, experts said a crucial Millennium Development Goal to halt and begin to reverse the incidence of malaria by 2015 has been met "convincingly," with new cases of the parasitic mosquito-borne infection down by 37 percent since 2000.
The dramatic declines was "one of the great public health success stories of the past 15 years," Chan said as she launched the report. "It's a sign that our strategies are on target and that we can beat this."
The report found an increasing number of countries on the verge of eliminating malaria. In 2014, 13 countries reported zero cases and six had fewer than 10 cases.
But malaria was far from beaten, Chan said. This year alone, there have been an estimated 214 million new cases, with around 438,000 deaths.
"Malaria kills mostly young children, especially those living in the poorest and most remote places. So the best way to celebrate global progress ... is to recommit ourselves to reaching and treating them," said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake.
"We know how to prevent and treat malaria. Since we can do it, we must."
A study by the Malaria Atlas Project at Britain's Oxford University found that "by far the most important intervention" in reducing malaria cases and deaths has been the use of insecticide-treated bednets (ITNs), around a billion of which have been distributed in Africa since 2000.
Some 68 percent of malaria cases prevented since 2000 were stopped by these bednets, while anti-malarial drugs called Artemisinin-based combination therapies and indoor spraying accounted for 22 percent and 10 percent of cases prevented, according to the study published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.
The United Nations has now sent a fresh goal to cut new cases and deaths by a further 90 percent by 2030. Anual funding for the malaria fight will need to triple from $2.7 billion now to $8.7 billion in 2030 to meet that goal.
"With a disease like malaria you can never tread water," Chan said. "You either surge ahead, or you sink." (Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Andrew Heavens)
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