The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that the number of deaths caused by malaria in sub-Saharan Africa could double to 769,000, as efforts to tackle the disease face disruptions by the coronavirus pandemic.
As of Thursday, the region had registered more than 26,000 cases of COVID-19, the highly infectious respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus. Some 7,000 people have so far recovered, while almost 1,250 have died.
At a media briefing, WHO Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti urged all countries to ensure that essential malaria prevention work continues during the coronavirus pandemic.
“A recent analysis has found that if insecticide-treated bed net distribution stops, and case management reduces, malaria deaths in sub-Saharan Africa could double in comparison to 2018,” Moeti said on Thursday.
“This would be the highest number of deaths seen in the region since the year 2000.”
Dr @MoetiTshidi urges all countries in Africa to maintain malaria interventions during the #COVID19 pandemic at today's @WHO media briefing with @WEF. Keeping up prevention and treatment will ensure that health workers and communities are protected. pic.twitter.com/x7wtbE83Yy
— WHO African Region (@WHOAFRO) April 23, 2020
Malaria is a life-threatening mosquito-borne disease that often causes fever, chills and flu-like symptoms. It is a treatable disease if it is caught early, but current antimalarial drugs are failing in many areas due to increasing drug resistance.
In 2018, there were 213 million malaria cases and 360,000 related deaths in the African region, accounting for more than 90 percent of cases worldwide.
The WHO said that if the focus on slowing the spread of the new coronavirus leads to a 75 percent reduction in access to anti-malaria medicines, deaths could double to 769,000. Such a scenario would have devastating consequences for young children, with those under five making up more than two-thirds of all malaria deaths in 2018.
The global health agency called on countries in sub-Saharan Africa – where nearly 95 percent of all the world’s malaria cases and deaths occur – to distribute malaria prevention and treatment tools now, before they become overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases.
“Countries across the region have a critical window of opportunity to minimise disruptions in malaria prevention and treatment and save lives at this stage of the COVID-19 outbreak,” the WHO said in a statement.
The doubling of the number of deaths represents the worst-case scenario, which also assumes the suspension of all distribution of treated mosquito nets due to the pandemic, the global health agency added.
Moeti cited figures from Africa’s Ebola outbreak showing that more people died of other diseases, including malaria, than from Ebola itself, due to lack of access to treatment.
“Let us not repeat that again with COVID-19,” she said.
In a separate statement on Thursday, the WHO also repeated a call to maintain immunization services worldwide to ensure the measures taken to halt the pandemic do not end up sparking a resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and polio.
“While the world strives to develop a new vaccine for COVID-19 at record speed, we must not risk losing the fight to protect everyone, everywhere against vaccine-preventable diseases,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in the statement.
“These diseases will come roaring back if we do not vaccinate.”