By Mary Nnah
Ahead of World Malaria Day billed for April 25, the global platform for coordinated action against malaria, the RBM Partnership to End Malaria, is calling on countries to act now to save almost 400,000 additional lives from malaria as the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The RBM Partnership to End Malaria, along with global and regional partners, including World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, is urging leaders of malaria affected countries to take advantage of the critical window of opportunity they now have, before the rainy season, to save lives and prevent over-burdening health systems.
The call comes in response to a new modelling study from WHO, which suggests that severe disruptions to insecticide-treated net campaigns and in access to antimalarial medicines due to COVID-19 could lead to a doubling of malaria deaths, potentially resulting in up to almost 800,000 malaria deaths in 2020. According to last year’s World Malaria Report, approximately 400,000 people died from malaria, the lowest level ever in almost 20 years.
Whilst the ongoing pandemic places extra burden on low-resourced health systems, particularly in Africa, which carries 90% of the global malaria burden, as well as parts of Asia and Latin America, the malaria community is calling for these countries to safely continue life-saving malaria interventions that accelerate diagnosis and treatment at the community level. These interventions include the distribution of long-lasting insecticide treated nets and preventative treatments for pregnant women and children, who are most at greatest risk of dying from a mosquito bite, and integrated community case management as part of essential health services.
Chief Executive Officer of the RBM Partnership to End Malaria, Dr Abdourahmane Diallo, said: “As COVID-19 spreads across the globe we must ensure that efforts to contain the virus do not compromise access to life-saving malaria prevention, diagnosis and treatment services. In 2018, investments in the malaria fight saved almost 600,000 lives and prevented nearly 100 million new infections each year compared to 2000 levels. Divert this funding or place holds on malaria interventions that could be safely carried out now and we could see an exponential increase in deaths from malaria this year. In the face of COVID-19, countries must act now to save lives, protect hard-fought progress, and strengthen health systems—our first line of defence against existing and emerging threats to public health.”
Early diagnosis and treatment of malaria at the community level is vital to preventing cases from becoming severe, which often require hospitalization and lead to death. In 2018, children under five accounted for nearly two thirds of all malaria deaths worldwide and 1 in 3 pregnant women in sub-Saharan Africa were infected with malaria.
Global investments in the malaria fight have helped to save 7 million lives and prevent more than 1 billion cases of malaria since 2000 – gains which are now under threat from COVID-19. These investments also helped build the health care capacity of malaria burdened countries, enabling them to fight malaria and other diseases and new threats like COVID-19, by: training tens of thousands of health care workers to conduct early diagnosis and treatment and integrated community case management of people with malaria/fevers; increasing access to life-saving treatments, rapid diagnostics and preventive interventions; building data systems to improve real-time surveillance of infectious diseases; improving supply chains and availability of effective medicines and medical equipment; and building in-country lab capacity.
Countries mobilize in response to COVID-19
Several countries have already heeded the call to continue their planned malaria programmes while taking precautionary measures against COVID-19, including Benin, Chad and Niger, which are going ahead with their mass distribution campaigns of insecticide treated mosquito nets, as well as Kenya, Malawi and Ghana, which are continuing to immunize children against malaria through a pilot malaria vaccine programmes announced on World Malaria Day last year.
World Malaria Day goes online
With the theme ‘Zero Malaria Starts with Me’, this year’s World Malaria Day reaffirms that it is everyone’s power and responsibility – no matter where they live – to ensure no one dies from a mosquito bite. The theme aims to remind citizens everywhere, and particularly in malaria burdened countries, of the personal responsibility we all have to protect communities from the disease and hold governments to account for ending this preventable disease.
To mark the global awareness day, a series of online activities are taking place to educate the wider health community on the fight to end malaria, including:
A “virtual applause”, on April 25th uniting people around the world on social media to thank health professionals working on the frontlines of the fight against malaria, COVID-19 and other diseases.
A live takeover of the RBM Partnership social media channels with Dr. Elvis Eze, a Nigerian-born and raised physician who has practiced in the NHS. Dr Eze will discuss the global malaria challenge, his role as an ambassador for the global malaria community, and his experiences suffering from and treating malaria in Nigeria.
The theme ‘Zero Malaria Starts with Me’ is inspired by the pan-African movement of the same name, which engages and enables political leaders, the private sector, communities, and other members of society to take actions that will protect their families and help communities and countries thrive.
People around the world can join the conversation on social media by using the following hashtags: #WorldMalariaDay, #ZeroMalariaStartswithMe, and #endmalaria.