WHO: Watch out for more malaria deaths in Africa

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A mother and her child sit on a bed covered with a mosquito net. PHOTO | TONY KARUMBA  

By The EastAfrican

Malaria deaths in sub-Saharan Africa could double this year due to disruptions in malaria treatment and prevention services during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, according to new modelling released by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Under the worst-case scenario, the UN agency says, severe disruptions in access to core malaria control tools during the pandemic could lead to a doubling in the number of malaria deaths in sub-Saharan Africa this year compared to 2018.


An analysis taking into consideration nine scenarios in 41 countries for potential disruptions shows that if there is a 75 per cent reduction in access to effective antimalarial medicines, and all insecticide-treated net (ITN) campaigns are suspended, an estimated 769,000 people would die of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa in 2020.

The WHO recommends antimalarial medicines like Artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs) for use in treating the mosquito-borne disease.

This is twice the number of deaths reported in the region in 2018 and would represent a return to malaria mortality levels last seen 20 years ago, the WHO said.

To date, the number of reported cases of Covid-19 in sub-Saharan Africa has represented only a small proportion of the global total, with 26,144 confirmed cases, 1,247 deaths, and 7,033 recoveries. East Africa has so far recorded 835 cases and 23 deaths. These numbers are increasing every week.

Year’s theme

World Malaria Day is commemorated every April 25 annually, to draw attention to the devastating impact of this disease on families.

The theme this year is “Zero Malaria Begins with Me”, a grassroots campaign, first launched in Senegal in 2014 which intends to engage everybody from policy-makers to the private industry to communities.

In a press statement, WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti said that malaria remains a threat, with about 400,000 dying of the disease every year.

“African countries have led a massive effort to control the disease and Algeria was certified malaria-free in 2019. However, there were still 213 million cases in the WHO African Region in 2018, accounting for 93 percent of cases worldwide,” Dr Moeti said in a statement released on Tuesday, April 21.

Brief interruptions

Prior to the arrival of the novel coronavirus in Africa, WHO was stressing the need for countries to ensure the continuity of routine essential health services, explained Dr Moeti.

An overburdened health system not only undermines the effectiveness of the response to Covid-19 but may also undermine the response to a whole host of preventable threats to human health.

“Even brief interruptions make outbreaks more likely to occur, putting children and other vulnerable groups more at risk of life-threatening diseases,” she said.

To address the current situation, the international health agency advises for countries to tailor malaria interventions in Covid-19 response which include guidance on the prevention of infection through vector control and chemo-prevention, testing, treatment of cases, clinical services, supply chain, and laboratory activities.

It also recommends that preventive therapies for pregnant women and children must be maintained.

“The provision of prompt diagnostic testing and effective antimalarial medicines are also essential to prevent a mild case of malaria from progressing to severe illness and death,” the modelling analysis notes.

2020 milestone

Dr Moeti said through the Sustainable Development Goals, countries have committed to ending the malaria epidemic by 2030.

A year ago, pilot testing of the world’s first malaria vaccine, RTS’S, started in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi. So far, 275,000 children have received the vaccine.

“This action is commendable, but we are falling short on the 2020 milestone of a 40 per cent reduction in cases and deaths. We will need to double our efforts to achieve a 75 per cent reduction by 2025.

Greater political commitment, accelerated investment, and more innovation in malaria prevention and control is urgently required,” she said.

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