Malaria campaign launched amid fears of an epidemic

Ethiopia has launched its largest ever fight against malaria amidst warnings of a looming epidemic in the country, with infection rates up to 10 times the normal levels, officials said on Monday.

More than two million chemically treated mosquito nets and 600,000 rapid test kits to diagnose the disease were being distributed around the country.

"This is the largest anti-malaria programme in Ethiopia's history," said Bjorn Ljungqvist, representative for the UN Children's Fund in Ethiopia, which is helping the government's fight.

"As we brace ourselves to confront a possible epidemic this year we are better armed to prevent the mass deaths that occurred during previous epidemics," he added.

Emergency drugs for 2.5 million people had also been imported to stave off the outbreak, which the government and UN were warning could happen as early as September.

Health minister Kebede Tadesse said heavy rains in Ethiopia could fuel an epidemic.

"We are alerting everybody and preparing ourselves as much as possible for this big epidemic," he told a press conference in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

"Reports from several regions this year indicate that there are four to 10 times the number of malaria cases compared to similar periods during the past two years," he added.

Malaria is the third biggest killer in Ethiopia, with some 50 million people at risk. Each year, around 80,000 Ethiopian children - 220 a day - die from malaria, while as many as 10 million people fall sick.

During the last major epidemic in 2003, six million people became infected and an estimated 40,000 died.

Ethiopia's cash-strapped government has budgeted US $100 million to fight malaria this year, but is dependent on foreign aid for more than 90 percent of the funds.

The potential epidemic comes as the country - one of the poorest in the world - continues to face massive food shortages, with nine million facing starvation.

Kebede said the only way the country could effectively prevent the disease was through food self-sufficiency.

"To fight it the best way is to prevent it, and prevention can only come through making available the necessary food to the children so they don't suffer from it," he said.

"In order to overcome this problem in a sustainable way you need to have economic development and you need to have a balanced development particularly focused at priorities like making food available," he added.

His comments came as Japan announced a donation of $5 million to buy test kits and nets.

All forms of malaria are deadly, but the parasite species plasmodium falcifarum, which causes cerebral malaria, is the most lethal, according to the UN World Health Organization.

Cerebral malaria - one of four types of malaria - can kill a person in three to four days if untreated.