Malaria deaths could be reduced to near zero by 2015, helped by progress made so far in the global fight against the disease and a vaccine that is becoming more effective, the U.N. special envoy for malaria said Monday on World Malaria Day.

Malaria currently kills more than 750,000 people every year around the world, with 90 per cent of deaths in Africa. India suffers the highest death toll outside Africa, with 50,000 annual deaths.

Ray Chambers, who is leading the U.N. programme against malaria, said eradicating the disease by the target year of 2015, as set by the U.N., can be reached, citing “immense progress” in recent years.

“We are optimistic to reach that goal of near zero deaths by 2015,” said Chambers, who was recently listed among the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine.

The U.N. has targeted 2015 to achieve major gains over diseases like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

Awa Marie Coll-Seck, executive director of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, said Chambers’ high profile can help raise awareness in the anti-malaria fight. Chambers said malaria awareness in the US jumped from 20 per cent in 2007 to 50 per cent this year.

Coll-Seck said major world health institutions, financed by the World Bank and philanthropists including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, are developing a 100-per-cent effective malaria vaccine, which would make the goal of eradicating malaria more possible. Currently, vaccines are only 50-per-cent effective, and malaria strains are not similar around the world.

Proven and cost-effective measures currently available to fight malaria include insecticide-treated bed nets, anti-malaria medicines like the artemisinin-based combination treatments (ACTs), sprays and preventive treatment for infants and pregnant women.

The U.N. General Assembly last week urged governments to accelerate efforts to roll back malaria worldwide, by building on achievements made so far to fight the disease.

The Roll Back Malaria programme said a total of 43 countries worldwide, including 11 African nations, have succeeded in halving malaria deaths in the last decade.

Some countries have made significant progress over the 50-per-cent death reduction. Zambia achieved a 62-per-cent decrease in deaths of children under five from 2001-08, while Sri Lanka reduced malaria deaths to zero in 2009.

The U.N. said malaria has been a health threat in more than 100 developing countries with a total population of 3.3 billion, and Africa alone needs an estimated 12 billion dollars a year to fight malaria.