Malaria fight disrupted by COVID pandemic: WHO

The UN health agency cited a total of 241 million cases of the disease in 2020, up 14 million from the year before.

A child reacts as she is screened for the malaria disease in Bentiu, Unity State, South Sudan [File: Njiri Karago/Medecins Sans Frontieres/Handout/Reuters]

The World Health Organization says the global response to the longtime threat of malaria has taken a hit as the coronavirus pandemic disrupted health services in many countries, leading to tens of thousands more deaths worldwide last year – as questions remain on the possible fallout this year.

The United Nations health agency, in the latest edition of its World Malaria Report on Monday, cited a total of 241 million cases of the disease in 2020, up 14 million from the year before, and 627,000 deaths – an increase of 69,000.

“Approximately two-thirds of these additional deaths [47,000] were linked to disruptions in the provision of malaria prevention, diagnosis and treatment during the pandemic,” WHO revealed in a statement on its website.

“Sub-Saharan Africa continues to carry the heaviest malaria burden, accounting for about 95 percent of all malaria cases and 96 percent of all deaths in 2020,” the UN agency said, adding that about 80 percent of the deaths in the region were among children below five years of age.

Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, said governments in the continent, together with their partners, “need to intensify their efforts so that we do not lose even more ground to this preventable disease”.

Averting worst-case scenario

However, the WHO did note that figures for last year could have been much worse though, saying its original projection anticipated a possible doubling of malaria-related deaths in 2020, and many countries sought to ramp up their programmes to fight malaria.

“The first message, in many ways, is a good news message: Due or thanks to the strenuous efforts of malaria-endemic countries – partners and others – I think we can claim that the world has succeeded in averting the worst-case scenario of malaria deaths that we’d contemplated as a likely or possible scenario a year ago,” Pedro Alonso, director of WHO’s Global Malaria Programme, told reporters.

The “doomsday scenario has not materialised”, he added.

Between 2000 and 2020, 23 countries managed to go three consecutive years with no local transmission, and so far in 2021, China and El Salvador were certified malaria-free.

Another positive step is the development of the first malaria vaccine. Last week, the global vaccine alliance, Gavi, said it had approved nearly $156m in funding to roll out the jabs to children in sub-Saharan Africa.

Nevertheless, WHO cautioned that progress against malaria has levelled off in recent years, and two dozen countries have tallied increases in deaths related to malaria since 2015, the baseline year for WHO’s malaria strategy.

In the 11 hardest-hit countries, annual cases of malaria grew by 13 million to 163 million between 2015 and 2020, and deaths rose more than 54,000 to nearly 445,000 annually as of last year, WHO said.

Overall, though, the agency pointed to successes over the last generation. A revised methodology in tallying the deaths from mortality, said to be more precise, found that more than 10 million malaria deaths have been averted since the year 2000, Alonso said.

But in recent years, “we are not on a trajectory to success”, he added, cautioning that it is hard to tell what the effect will be in 2021 and beyond.

“How things will evolve over the coming weeks and months I wouldn’t dare to say at this point,” Alonso said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies