Christmas 2020 questions: Who invented Santa Claus? Who really wrote the “Night Before Christmas?”

December 24, 2020

An encore post and Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub tradition from 2007, with modifications.

“Today in History from the Associated Press notes, for December 23:

In 1823, the poem “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” was published anonymously in the Troy (N.Y.) Sentinel; the verse, more popularly known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” was later attributed to Clement C. Moore.

Regardless who wrote the poem first published 197 years ago, how did the poem influence America’s view of St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus?  And how much of the Santa Claus story really was invented in America?

Thomas Nast invented Santa Claus? Clement C. Moore didn’t write the famous poem that starts out, “‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house . . . ?”

The murky waters of history from Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub soak even our most cherished ideas and traditions.

Isn’t that part of the fun of history?

Santa Claus delivers to Union soldiers, "Santa Claus in Camp" - Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly, Jan 3, 1863

In January 1863, Thomas Nast portrayed Santa Claus as he delivered gifts to Union troops a few days earlier in Washington, D.C., wearing a blue, star-spangled coat.

Yes, Virginia (and California, too)! Thomas Nast created the image of Santa Claus most of us in the U.S. know today. Perhaps even more significant than his campaign against the graft of Boss Tweed, Nast’s popularization of a fat, jolly elf who delivers good things to people for Christmas makes one of the great stories in commercial illustration. Nast’s cartoons, mostly for the popular news publication Harper’s Weekly, created many of the conventions of modern political cartooning and modeled the way in which an illustrator could campaign for good, with his campaign against the graft of Tammany Hall and Tweed. But Nast’s popular vision of Santa Claus can be said to be the foundation for the modern mercantile flurry around Christmas.

Nast is probably ensconced in a cartoonists’ hall of fame. Perhaps he should be in a business or sales hall of fame, too.  [See also Bill Casselman’s page, “The Man Who Designed Santa Claus.]

Nast’s drawings probably drew some inspiration from the poem, “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” traditionally attributed to Clement C. Moore, a New York City lawyer, published in 1823. The poem is among the earliest to describe the elf dressed in fur, and magically coming down a chimney to leave toys for children; the poem invented the reindeer-pulled sleigh.

Modern analysis suggests the poem was not the work of Moore, and many critics and historians now attribute it to Major Henry Livingston, Jr. (1748-1828) following sleuthing by Vassar College Prof. Don Foster in 2000. Fortunately for us, we do not need to be partisans in such a query to enjoy the poem (a complete copy of which is below the fold).

The Library of Congress still gives Moore the credit. When disputes arise over who wrote about the night before Christmas, is it any wonder more controversial topics produce bigger and louder disputes among historians?

Moore was not known for being a poet. The popular story is that he wrote it on the spur of the moment:

Moore is thought to have composed the tale, now popularly known as “The Night Before Christmas,” on December 24, 1822, while traveling home from Greenwich Village, where he had bought a turkey for his family’s Christmas dinner.

Inspired by the plump, bearded Dutchman who took him by sleigh on his errand through the snow-covered streets of New York City, Moore penned A Visit from St. Nicholas for the amusement of his six children, with whom he shared the poem that evening. His vision of St. Nicholas draws upon Dutch-American and Norwegian traditions of a magical, gift-giving figure who appears at Christmas time, as well as the German legend of a visitor who enters homes through chimneys.

Again from the Library of Congress, we get information that suggests that Moore was a minor celebrity from a well-known family with historical ties that would make a good “connections” exercise in a high school history class, perhaps (”the link from Aaron Burr’s treason to Santa Claus?”): (read more, below the fold)

Clement Moore was born in 1779 into a prominent New York family. His father, Benjamin Moore, president of Columbia University, in his role as Episcopal Bishop of New York participated in the inauguration of George Washington as the nation’s first president. The elder Moore also administered last rites to Alexander Hamilton after he was mortally wounded in a tragic duel with Aaron Burr.

A graduate of Columbia, Clement Moore was a scholar of Hebrew and a professor of Oriental and Greek literature at the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan. [See comment from Pam Bumsted below for more on Moore.] He is said to have been embarrassed by the light-hearted verse, which was made public without his knowledge in December 1823. Moore did not publish it under his name until 1844.

Tonight, American children will be tucked in under their blankets and quilts and read this beloved poem as a last “sugarplum” before slipping into dreamland. Before they drift off, treat them to a message from Santa, recorded by the Thomas Edison Company in 1922.

Santa Claus Hides in Your Phonograph
By Arthur A. Penn, Performed by Harry E. Humphrey.
Edison, 1922.
Coupling date: 6/20/1922. Cutout date: 10/31/1929.
Inventing Entertainment: The Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies

Listen to this recording (RealAudio Format)

Listen to this recording (wav Format, 8,471 Kb)

But Henry Livingston was no less noble or historic. He hailed from the Livingstons of the Hudson Valley (one of whose farms is now occupied by Camp Rising Sun of the Louis August Jonas Foundation, a place where I spent four amazing summers teaching swimming and lifesaving). Livingston’s biography at the University of Toronto site offers another path for a connections exercise (”What connects the Declaration of Independence, the American invasion of Canada, the famous poem about a visit from St. Nick, and George W. Bush?”):

Henry Livingston Jr. was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, on Oct. 13, 1748. The Livingston family was one of the important colonial and revolutionary families of New York. The Poughkeepsie branch, descended from Gilbert, the youngest son of Robert Livingston, 1st Lord of Livingston Manor, was not as well off as the more well-known branches, descended from sons Robert and Philip. Two other descendants of Gilbert Livingston, President George Walker Herbert Bush and his son, President-Elect George W. Bush, though, have done their share to bring attention to this line. Henry’s brother, Rev. John Henry Livingston, entered Yale at the age of 12, and was able to unite the Dutch and American branches of the Dutch Reformed Church. At the time of his death, Rev. Livingston was president of Rutgers University. Henry’s father and brother Gilbert were involved in New York politics, and Henry’s granduncle was New York’s first Lt. Governor. But the law was the natural home for many of Henry’s family. His brother-in-law, Judge Jonas Platt, was an unsuccessful candidate for governor, as was his daughter Elizabeth’s husband, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Smith Thompson. Henry’s grandson, Sidney Breese, was Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court.

Known for his encyclopedic knowledge and his love of literature, Henry Livingston was a farmer, surveyor and Justice of the Peace, a judicial position dealing with financially limited criminal and civil cases. One of the first New Yorkers to enlist in the Revolutionary Army in 1775, Major Henry Livingston accompanied his cousin’s husband, General Montgomery, in his campaign up the Hudson River to invade Canada, leaving behind his new wife, Sarah Welles, and their week-old baby, on his Poughkeepsie property, Locust Grove. Baby Catherine was the subject of the first poem currently known by Major Livingston. Following this campaign, Livingston was involved in the War as a Commissioner of Sequestration, appropriating lands owned by British loyalists and selling them for the revolutionary cause. It was in the period following Sarah’s early death in 1783, that Major Livingston published most of his poems and prose, anonymously or under the pseudonym of R. Ten years after the death of Sarah, Henry married Jane Patterson, the daughter of a Dutchess County politician and sister of his next-door neighbor. Between both wives, Henry fathered twelve children. He published his good-natured, often occasional verse from 1787 in many journals, including Political Barometer, Poughkeepsie Journal, and New-York Magazine. His most famous poem, “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” was until 2000 thought to have been the work of Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863), who published it with his collected poems in 1844. Livingston died Feb. 29, 1828.

More on Henry Livingston and his authorship of the Christmas poem here.

Thomas Nast’s full realization of Santa Claus, “Merry Old Santa Claus,” January 1, 1881. Harper’s Weekly, from the Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, via Bill Cassellman's site

Thomas Nast’s full realization of Santa Claus, “Merry Old Santa Claus,” January 1, 1881. Harper’s Weekly, from Wikimedia.

Our views of Santa Claus owe a great deal also to Coca-Cola advertising campaigns. Coca-Cola first noted Santa’s use of the drink in a 1922 campaign to suggest Coke was a year-round drink (100 years after the publication of Livingston’s poem). The company’s on-line archives gives details:

In 1930, artist Fred Mizen painted a department store Santa in a crowd drinking a bottle of Coke. The ad featured the world’s largest soda fountain, which was located in the department store of Famous Barr Co. in St. Louis, Mo. Mizen’s painting was used in print ads that Christmas season, appearing in The Saturday Evening Post in December 1930.

1936 Coca-Cola Santa cardboard store display

1936 Coca-Cola Santa cardboard store display

1942 original oil painting - 'They Remembered Me'

1942 original oil painting – ‘They Remembered Me’

Archie Lee, the D’Arcy Advertising Agency executive working with The Coca-Cola Company, wanted the next campaign to show a wholesome Santa as both realistic and symbolic. In 1931, The Coca-Cola Company commissioned Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop advertising images using Santa Claus — showing Santa himself, not a man dressed as Santa, as Mizen’s work had portrayed him.

For inspiration, Sundblom turned to Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (commonly called “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”). Moore’s description of St. Nick led to an image of Santa that was warm, friendly, pleasantly plump and human. For the next 33 years, Sundblom painted portraits of Santa that helped to create the modern image of Santa — an interpretation that today lives on in the minds of people of all ages, all over the world.

Santa Claus is a controversial figure. Debates still rage among parents about the wisdom of allowing the elf into the family’s home, and under what conditions. Theologians worry that the celebration of Christmas is diluted by the imagery. Other faiths worry that the secular, cultural impact of Santa Claus damages their own faiths (few other faiths have such a popular figure, and even atheists generally give gifts and participate in Christmas rituals such as putting up a decorated tree).

For over 100 years, Santa Claus has been a popular part of commercial, cultural and religious life in America. Has any other icon endured so long, or so well?

Coca-Cola’s film, “The Legend of Coca-Cola and Santa Claus”:

________________________
Below:
From the University of Toronto Library’s Representative Poetry Online

Major Henry Livingston, Jr. (1748-1828)

Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas

1 ‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house,

2 Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

3 The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

4 In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

5 The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

6 While visions of sugar plums danc’d in their heads,

7 And Mama in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,

8 Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap –

9 When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

10 I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.

11 Away to the window I flew like a flash,

12 Tore open the shutters, and threw up the sash.

13 The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow,

14 Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below;

15 When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,

16 But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,

17 With a little old driver, so lively and quick,

18 I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

19 More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,

20 And he whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:

21 “Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer, and Vixen,

22 “On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Dunder and Blixem;

23 “To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!

24 “Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”

25 As dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly,

26 When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;

27 So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,

28 With the sleigh full of Toys — and St. Nicholas too:

29 And then in a twinkling, I heard on the roof

30 The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

31 As I drew in my head, and was turning around,

32 Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound:

33 He was dress’d all in fur, from his head to his foot,

34 And his clothes were all tarnish’d with ashes and soot;

35 A bundle of toys was flung on his back,

36 And he look’d like a peddler just opening his pack:

37 His eyes — how they twinkled! his dimples how merry,

38 His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;

39 His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow.

40 And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;

41 The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,

42 And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.

43 He had a broad face, and a little round belly

44 That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly:

45 He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,

46 And I laugh’d when I saw him in spite of myself;

47 A wink of his eye and a twist of his head

48 Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

49 He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,

50 And fill’d all the stockings; then turn’d with a jerk,

51 And laying his finger aside of his nose

52 And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.

53 He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,

54 And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle:

55 But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight –

56 Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Online text copyright © 2005, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto. Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries. Be sure to visit this site for more information on this poem, on Maj. Livingston, and on poetry in general.

More:


Scrooge’s continuing Christmas gift: Appropriate words for seeing 2020 out

December 11, 2020

I wish it were not so. These words of Dickens’s through Scrooge, remain salient, damning and depressing, every day Donald Trump holds the Oval Office. Now Trump’s been impeached, but left in place, and defeated by American voters, but he still sits on his throne, messing up America in every way he can think to do it.

And so our annual post on the lessons we take from “A Christmas Carol.”

Roberto Innocenti, Scrooge on a dark staircase

Ebenezer Scrooge, up a dark staircase; “Darkness was cheap, and Scrooge liked it.” Illustration by Roberto Innocenti, via Pinterest.

It’s a Quote of the Moment (an encore post for the season, with a bit of context thrown in later), Trump’s platform, and life, edited down to just three words, in green:

Darkness is cheap,
and Scrooge liked it.

– Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Stave 1

Isn’t that the entire GOP platform in three words? “Darkness is cheap.” Substitute “Trump” for “Scrooge,” you’ve got the picture. Three more words than the actual Republican National Platform of 2020, but more accurate.

I think of that line of Dickens’s often when  I read of the celebrations of calumny that pass as discourse in Republican politics these days. Although, with the 2008 renewing of Limbaugh’s contract, with the 2020 coming of COVID-19, it may no longer be true that his particular brand of darkness is cheap. With the advent of Donald Trump’s insult politics, offending America’s allies and all American ethnic groups possible, with un-ironic calls to drop nuclear weapons, GOP politics is even darker than ever.

Cheap or not, darkness remains dark.

John Leach, Scrooge meets Ignorance and Want

Scrooge meets Ignorance and Want, the products of his stinginess (drawing by John Leech, 1809-1870)

Here is the sentence Dickens put before the quote, to add a little context; Scrooge was climbing a very large, very dark staircase.

Half-a-dozen gas-lamps out of the street wouldn’t have lighted the entry too well, so you may suppose that it was pretty dark with Scrooge’s dip.

Up Scrooge went, not caring a button for that. Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.

Speaking of darkness, a longer excerpt from a bit later in Dickens’s story, when the Ghost of Christmas Present ushers Scrooge to glimpse what is in the present, but what will be the future if Scrooge does not repent:

‘Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,’ said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, ‘but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?’

‘It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,’ was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. ‘Look here.’

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

‘Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!’ exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

‘Spirit! are they yours?’ Scrooge could say no more.

‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!’

‘Have they no refuge or resource?’ cried Scrooge.

‘Are there no prisons?’ said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses?’ The bell struck twelve.

Scrooge looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of old Jacob Marley, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him.

A Christmas Carol, Stave 3

Think of 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020, children abused in Central America and in the Middle East, fleeing as best they can, only to die, off the shores of Greece, on the southern deserts of the U.S., or be cast into incarceration after having achieved a nation whose very name promised them refuge, the United States. “Two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable,” Dickens described. Whose children? “Man’s.” Yours, and mine.

Christmas is a festival to celebrate light, what many Christians call “the light of the world?” If so, let us work to stamp out the darkness which the unrepentant Scrooge so dearly loved.

Darkness may be cheap, but it is not good.  Light a candle, and run into the darkness, spreading light. We need more light.

Hope you have a merry Christmas in the making for 2020. Let us remember, as Tom and the late Ray Magliozzi always reminded us, the cheapskate pays more in the end, and usually along the way. Is Darkness cheap? Let us then eschew it as too costly for a moral nation, too costly for a moral people.

Is Donald Trump as smart as Ebenezer Scrooge? Is his heart as good as Scrooge’s heart?

If Trump died, who would attend his funeral?

When we die, who will mourn our passing? Which spirit moves us to action?

God bless us, every one. Or gods, or family and friends bless us, as the case may be.

More:

Yes, this is an encore post, mostly. Fighting ignorance is taking a lot longer than anyone thought.

Yes, this is an encore post, mostly. Fighting ignorance is taking a lot longer than anyone thought.

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Mississippi flags fly for statehood, December 10, 2020

December 9, 2020

For statehood day this year, Mississippi has a new state flag.

Abandoning vestiges of the old Confederacy, Mississippi voters approved a new flag for the state in November, harkening back to its original flag featuring a magnolia tree. This flag is popularly called the “In God We Trust” flag, carrying the most recent of the “official” mottoes of the U.S. The flag change was prompted by Black Lives Matter protests following the killing of George Floyd

U.S. Flag Code urges residents of states to fly U.S. flags on the anniversary of that state’s joining the union. Technically, then, the shortage of new flags shouldn’t impair Mississippi’s celebration of statehood.

Mississippi joined the union as the 20th state on December 10, 1817.

Do Mississippians celebrate?

More:

Mississippi Power raises new Mississippi flag with the U.S. flag, at its headquarters. Mississippi Power image.

December 3 is Illinois Statehood Day; let your flags fly for 202 years of US-ness

December 3, 2020

American Experience reminded us at Facebook that December 3 is the anniversary of the day Illnois was admitted to the union in 1818, the 21st state.

Under the U.S. flag Code, Americans should fly their U.S. flags on the statehood day of their state.

Illinois is 202 years old as a state today, December 3, 2020.

You flying ’em, Illinois?  You should be!

Map of the Illinois territory, about 1818, the year the state was admitted to the union, on December 3.

Map of the Illinois territory, about 1818, the year the state was admitted to the union, on December 3.

At the American Memory site at the Library of Congress, we get a good, brief dose of the events leading to statehood.

Land of Lincoln

Springfield, Illinois, 1867. Drawn from Nature. A. Ruger, 1867. Map Collections of the Library of Congress

Springfield, Illinois, 1867. Drawn from Nature. A. Ruger, 1867. Map Collections of the Library of Congress

Illinois entered the Union on December 3, 1818. The twenty-first state takes its name from the Illinois Confederation—a group of Algonquian-speaking tribes native to the area. An Algonquian word, “Illinois” means “tribe of superior men.”

Remnants of a much earlier Algonquin civilization thought the most sophisticated prehistoric society north of Mexico, are preserved at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in the southwestern part of the state.

French explorers Louis Jolliet and Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette entered the Illinois region in 1673. Control of the territory passed to Great Britain in 1763. When the United States acquired the land that became Illinois Territory in 1783, most European settlers there were of French descent. In 1788, the Continental Congress received information concerning the inhabitants of the Illinois area. “There are sundry French settlements on the river Mississippi within the tract,” the committee reported:

Near the mouth of the river Kaskaskies, there is a village which appears to have contained near eighty families from the beginning of the late revolution. There are twelve families in a small village at la Prairie duRochers, and near fifty families—the Kahokia village. There are also four or five families at fort Chartres and St. Philips, which is five miles farther up the river. The heads of families in those villages appear each of them to have had a certain quantity of arable land allotted to them, and a proportionate quantity of meadow and of woodland or pasture. The Committee…referred the memorial of George Morgan…respecting a tract of land in the Illinois, June 20, 1788.
Documents from the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789

Twenty years later, Congress organized the Illinois Territory. Pioneers from Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee settled the southern part of the territory, while New Englanders ventured to northern Illinois via the Erie Canal.

Land of Lincoln, the state slogan, pays homage to famous son Abraham Lincoln. Born in Kentucky, Lincoln came to Illinois in 1830. He was instrumental, along with his colleagues in the Illinois legislature, in moving the state capital from Vandalia to Springfield. Settling there in 1837, Lincoln married socially prominent resident Mary Todd, practiced law, and built the political career that brought him the presidency in 1861.

Chicago, a minor trading post at the southwestern tip of Lake Michigan until the 1830s, developed into a railroad hub and industrial center. After the Civil War, industrialization attracted a new wave of immigrants. People from all over the U.S. and the world ventured to Chicago to work in the meat-packing and steel industries. Even the Great Conflagration of 1871 failed to prevent the Windy City from becoming one of the largest urban centers in the country. It remains the third most populous city and metropolitan area in the United States.

Learn more about Illinois:

Lotta history there.

U.S., Illinois and City of Chicago flags in a stiff breeze at the Navy Pier, Chicago. Photo by John Junker, at flickr.

U.S., Illinois and City of Chicago flags in a stiff breeze at the Navy Pier, Chicago. Photo by John Junker, at flickr. (copyright to Junker, too)

Even more:

This is an encore post.
Yes, this is an encore post. Defeating ignorance takes patience and perseverance.

World Malaria Report 2020: Governments fell short of pledges, malaria poised to make a comeback.

December 1, 2020

World Malaria Report 2020 carries bad news. Despite remarkable progress against malaria, despite being on the verge of beating the disease and eradicating it from the planet, governments stopped supporting anti-malaria work.

Malaria is poised to come roaring back to kill millions.

COVID-19 complicates fighting malaria. But the real enemy of the fight against malaria is apathy, neglect and ignorance.

Cover of World Malaria Report 2020, WHO's annual accounting of the fight to eradicate malaria.

Cover of World Malaria Report 2020, WHO’s annual accounting of the fight to eradicate malaria.

Below, the full press release from the World Health Organization (WHO) on the 2020 accounting of the war against malaria.

____________________________

WHO calls for reinvigorated action to fight malaria

Global malaria gains threatened by access gaps, COVID-19 and funding shortfalls

30 November 2020
News release
Reading time: 6 min (1645 words)

The World Health Organization (WHO) is calling on countries and global health partners to step up the fight against malaria, a preventable and treatable disease that continues to claim hundreds of thousands of lives each year. A better targeting of interventions, new tools and increased funding are needed to change the global trajectory of the disease and reach internationally-agreed targets.

According to WHO‘s latest World malaria report, progress against malaria continues to plateau, particularly in high burden countries in Africa. Gaps in access to life-saving tools are undermining global efforts to curb the disease, and the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to set back the fight even further.

“It is time for leaders across Africa – and the world – to rise once again to the challenge of malaria, just as they did when they laid the foundation for the progress made since the beginning of this century,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Through joint action, and a commitment to leaving no one behind, we can achieve our shared vision of a world free of malaria.”

In 2000, African leaders signed the landmark Abuja Declaration pledging to reduce malaria deaths on the continent by 50% over a 10-year period. Robust political commitment, together with innovations in new tools and a steep increase in funding, catalyzed an unprecedented period of success in global malaria control. According to the report, 1.5 billion malaria cases and 7.6 million deaths have been averted since 2000.

A plateau in progress

In 2019, the global tally of malaria cases was 229 million, an annual estimate that has remained virtually unchanged over the last 4 years. The disease claimed some 409 000 lives in 2019 compared to 411 000 in 2018.

As in past years, the African Region shouldered more than 90% of the overall disease burden. Since 2000, the region has reduced its malaria death toll by 44%, from an estimated 680 000 to 384 000 annually. However, progress has slowed in recent years, particularly in countries with a high burden of the disease.

A funding shortfall at both the international and domestic levels poses a significant threat to future gains. In 2019, total funding reached US $3 billion against a global target of $5.6 billion. Funding shortages have led to critical gaps in access to proven malaria control tools.

COVID-19 an added challenge

In 2020, COVID-19 emerged as an additional challenge to the provision of essential health services worldwide. According to the report, most malaria prevention campaigns were able to move forward this year without major delays. Ensuring access to malaria prevention – such as insecticide-treated nets and preventive medicines for children – has supported the COVID-19 response strategy by reducing the number of malaria infections and, in turn, easing the strain on health systems. WHO worked swiftly to provide countries with guidance to adapt their responses and ensure the safe delivery of malaria services during the pandemic.

However, WHO is concerned that even moderate disruptions in access to treatment could lead to a considerable loss of life. The report finds, for example, that a 10% disruption in access to effective antimalarial treatment in sub-Saharan Africa could lead to 19 000 additional deaths. Disruptions of 25% and 50% in the region could result in an additional 46 000 and 100 000 deaths, respectively.

“While Africa has shown the world what can be achieved if we stand together to end malaria as a public health threat, progress has stalled,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “COVID-19 threatens to further derail our efforts to overcome malaria, particularly treating people with the disease. Despite the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on African economies, international partners and countries need to do more to ensure that the resources are there to expand malaria programmes which are making such a difference in people’s lives.”

WHO response

A key strategy to reignite progress is the “High burden to high impact” (HBHI) response, catalyzed in 2018 by WHO and the RBM Partnership to End Malaria. The response is led by 11 countries – including 10 in sub-Saharan Africa – that account for approximately 70% of the world’s malaria burden.

Over the last 2 years, HBHI countries have been moving away from a “one-size-fits all” approach to malaria control – opting, instead, for tailored responses based on local data and intelligence. A recent analysis from Nigeria, for example, found that through an optimized mix of interventions, the country could avert tens of millions of additional cases and thousands of additional deaths by the year 2023, compared to a business-as-usual approach.

While it is too early to measure the impact of the HBHI approach, the report finds that deaths in the 11 countries were reduced from 263 000 to 226 000 between 2018 and 2019.  India continued to make impressive gains, with reductions in cases and deaths of 18% and 20%, respectively, over the last 2 years. There was, however, a slight increase in the total number of cases among HBHI countries, from an estimated 155 million in 2018 to 156 million in 2019.

Meeting global malaria targets

This year’s report highlights key milestones and events that helped shape the global response to the disease in recent decades. Beginning in the 1990s, leaders of malaria-affected countries, scientists and other partners laid the groundwork for a renewed malaria response that contributed to one of the biggest returns on investment in global health.

According to the report, 21 countries eliminated malaria over the last 2 decades; of these, 10 countries were officially certified as malaria-free by WHO. In the face of the ongoing threat of antimalarial drug resistance, the 6 countries of the Greater Mekong subregion continue to make major gains towards their goal of malaria elimination by 2030.

But many countries with a high burden of malaria have been losing ground.  According to WHO global projections, the 2020 target for reductions in malaria case incidence will be missed by 37% and the mortality reduction target will be missed by 22%.

Note to editors

WHO’s work on malaria is guided by the Global technical strategy for malaria 2016-2030 (GTS), approved by the World Health Assembly in May 2015. The strategy includes four global targets for 2030, with milestones along the way to track progress. The 2030 targets are: 1) reducing malaria case incidence by at least 90%; 2) reducing malaria mortality rates by at least 90%; 3) eliminating malaria in at least 35 countries; and
4) preventing a resurgence of malaria in all countries that are malaria-free.

Near-term GTS milestones for 2020 include global reductions in malaria case incidence and death rates of at least 40% and the elimination of malaria in at least 10 countries. According to the report, the 2020 milestones for malaria case incidence and mortality rates will be missed:
Case incidence:  WHO projects that, in 2020, there were an estimated 56 malaria cases for every 1000 people at risk of the disease against a GTS target of 35 cases. The GTS milestone will be missed by an estimated 37%.
Mortality rate: The estimate for globally projected malaria deaths per 100 000 population at risk was 9.8 in 2020 against a GTS target of 7.2 deaths. The milestone will be missed by an estimated 22%.

WHO African Region Since 2014, the rate of progress in both cases and deaths in the region has slowed, attributed mainly to the stalling of progress in several countries with moderate or high transmission. In 2019, six African countries accounted for 50% of all malaria cases globally: Nigeria (23%), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (11%), United Republic of Tanzania (5%), Niger (4%), Mozambique (4%) and Burkina Faso (4%). In view of recent trends, the African Region will miss the GTS 2020 milestones for case incidence and mortality by 37% and 25%, respectively.

 “High burden to high impact” (HBHI) Launched in November 2018, HBHI builds on the principle that no one should die from a disease that is preventable and treatable. It is led by 11 countries that, together, accounted for approximately 70% of the world’s malaria burden in 2017: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, India, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Uganda and United Republic of Tanzania. Over the last two years, all 11 HBHI countries have implemented activities across four response elements: 1) political will to reduce the toll of malaria; 2) strategic information to drive impact; 3) better guidance, policies and strategies; and 4) a coordinated national malaria response

Malaria elimination – Between 2000 and 2019, 10 countries received the official WHO certification of malaria elimination: United Arab Emirates (2007), Morocco (2010), Turkmenistan (2010), Armenia (2011), Kyrgyzstan (2016), Sri Lanka (2016), Uzbekistan (2018), Paraguay (2018), Argentina (2019) and Algeria (2019). In 2019, China reported zero indigenous cases of malaria for the third consecutive year; the country recently applied for the official WHO certification of malaria elimination. In 2020, El Salvador became the first country in Central America to apply for the WHO malaria-free certification

In the six countries of the Greater Mekong subregion – Cambodia, China (Yunnan Province), Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam – the reported number of malaria cases fell by 90% from 2000 to 2019, while P. falciparum (Pf) cases fell by 97% in the same time period. This accelerated decrease in Pf malaria is notable in view of the threat posed by antimalarial drug resistance in the subregion.

A call for innovation Eliminating malaria in all countries, especially those with a high disease burden, will likely require tools that are not available today. In September 2019, the WHO Director-General issued a “malaria challenge,” calling on the global health community to ramp up investment in the research and development of new malaria-fighting tools and approaches. This message was further reinforced in the April 2020 report of the WHO Strategic advisory group on malaria eradication.


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