How important are target dates?

If target dates were realistic, there would have been no more guinea worm in the world as of 1995. As it stands today

“Ghana appears to have broken Guinea worm transmission! With 7 consecutive months of zero cases reported since May 2010, and 14 months after reporting its last known uncontained case in October 2009, Ghana might have conquered Guinea worm disease! Surveillance continues while the Guinea Worm Eradication Program waits and watches. Currently, only four countries continue to report cases of Guinea worm disease: Southern Sudan, Mali, Ethiopia, and Chad.”

Sixteen years after the supposed eradication date approximatelt 376 cases were documented in the first four months of 2011.

Even the famous smallpox eradication effort could not achieve its targets until a paradigm shift occurred that changed intervention approaches from from maintaining high vaccine coverage to case containment that focused on outbreaks – vaccinating in a radius around cases until the disease disappeared.

Another set of goals – 80% coverage with key malaria interventions by the end of 2010 – has come and gone. The country with the largest burden of disease, Nigeria, was able to achieve around 67% of its insecticide treated bednet distribution target by 31 December 2011, let alone actual use by 80% of the population.  Nigeria is not alone in this situation.

The website, Global Atlanta, headlines that “U.S. Works to End Malaria by 2015”. While not technically true, the headline is followed by the actual goal – “The U.S. government is leading the way in ending malaria-related deaths by 2015, the head of the President’s Malaria Initiative said at a youth leadership conference organized by Usher’s New Look Foundation.”

nigeria-mdg5.jpgThe 2015 date refers to the Millennium Development Goals. Many countries find themselves lagging in in the interrelated MDGs (see picture). Our ability to reduce malaria mortality (if not morbidity) depends so much on health systems issues – procurement, supply, distribution, access, and use.

We have to be careful with public goal statements lest we create and then deflate expectations, with the unwanted side-effect of scaring away donors and national financial commitment.  Goals are a public relations tool – just be careful that they are realistic and don’t backfire.

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