The latest coronavirus pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa could seriously disrupt access to anti-malaria nets and medicines, the World Health Organization said Thursday, warning that deaths from malaria risked doubling if efforts are not urgently increased.
The UN Health Agency has called on countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where nearly 95 percent of all malaria cases and deaths in the world occur, to spread malaria prevention and treatment resources quickly now, before they are too overwhelmed by new cases of coronavirus.
“Extreme disruptions to insecticide-treated net campaigns and access to antimalarial medicines could lead to a doubling in malaria deaths this year compared to 2018 in sub-Saharan Africa,” cautioned the WHO, citing new modeling research.
The study, it said, looks at nine possibilities for potential changes in access to core malaria control resources across 41 countries during the pandemic, and the resulting likely increases in cases and deaths.
Under the worst-case scenario, where all programs to deliver insecticide-treated networks are halted and access to effective antimalarial medicines is decreased by 75 percent, “the total number of deaths from malaria in sub-Saharan Africa in 2020 will exceed 769,000,” said WHO.
This is twice the number of deaths recorded in the area in 2018, it underlined, adding that such an rise will mean a return to rates of malaria mortality not seen in two decades.
The hike would have especially devastating implications for young children with those under the age of five responsible for more than two-thirds of all deaths from malaria in 2018.
WHO stressed that in the COVID-19 pandemic, which killed more than 180,000 people globally and infected more than 2,6 million, sub-Saharan African countries have reported relatively few cases so far.
But the department, which has long cautioned that the region’s poor health systems risked getting seriously overwhelmed as cases increase, said the disease picked up pace there.
“This means that countries across the area have a crucial window of opportunity at this point of the COVID-19 outbreak to reduce disruptions in malaria prevention and care and save lives,” he said.
“Mass vector control efforts should be speeded up, ensuring safety against COVID-19 transmission for both health workers and populations,” it said.
The WHO also reiterated its call for the continuation of immunization programs worldwide in a separate statement Thursday to ensure that the steps taken to stop the pandemic did not end up causing a revival of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and polio.
“While the world is working to create a new COVID-19 vaccine at record pace, we must not risk losing the battle to protect everyone against vaccine-preventable diseases everywhere,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in the statement.
“If we don’t vaccinate, those diseases will come rushing back.”