Four African countries saw significantly fewer childhood deaths from malaria after distributing insecticide-treated bed nets and combination drug therapy, according to a new report released by the World Health Organization (WHO).

WHO recommends that malaria-stricken countries distribute so-called long lasting insecticidal nets to protect sleepers from mosquitoes carrying the malaria parasite as well as a cocktail of medicines (artemisinin-based combination therapy, or ACT) designed to treat drug-resistant malaria (Plasmodium falciparum), a growing problem.

To find out how the recommended malaria strategy is working, WHO agents reviewed health records from 30 rural hospitals and clinics for the past seven years in the countries that were first to dispense the nets and ACT drugs. They found that from 2005 to 2007 malaria deaths in children under age five had declined 51 percent in Ethiopia, 66 percent in Rwanda, 33 percent in Zambia and 34 percent in Ghana, the latter of which was the only one of the four nations to see a drop in deaths from nonmalarial disease as well.

Malaria is blamed for at least a million deaths a year, most them young children in sub-Saharan Africa. Preventive drugs alone have failed to stave off the disease, because they are expensive and must be taken continually to be effective—and, even then, sometimes are impotent against resistant strains; it has also proved difficult to target with vaccines.

"It appears that dramatic reduction in malaria mortality can be achieved quickly and may enable many African countries to make rapid progress [in] child survival [rates]," the study authors wrote.

The report, written for the Geneva, Switzerland–based Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a major backer of malaria control efforts worldwide, attributed the steeper declines in Ethiopia and Rwanda to the number of treated nets distributed in 2005 and 2006.