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Malaria still kills 1,100 a day

It can’t afford to lose resources to coronavirus

| FREDROS OKUMU | Today, another 1,100 people will die from malaria. The number will be repeated tomorrow, and the day after.

As a public health researcher, I embrace the idea that all lives have equal value. That our goal is much more to delay death than to stop death, as the latter is inevitable. Therefore as we marked this year’s World Malaria Day, April 25, we emphasised the need for stronger health systems and sustained investments to tackle malaria more aggressively.

This message needs to be conveyed even more urgently than usual amid the coronavirus pandemic. Given the situation in Europe, China and the US, it is clear that COVID-19 significantly disrupts health systems and economic growth. There is genuine fear that if it continues spreading in Africa, the impact may be worse given the continent’s weaker health systems. One of the greatest concerns is the likely shift of attention and resources from control programmes of other infections, such as malaria.

Since 2000, Africa has benefited from some of the greatest efforts against malaria. This included a global coalition that has delivered more than 2 billion insecticide-treated nets to countries where malaria is endemic.

Given the extensive health gains, experts increasingly embraced the idea that malaria eradication, though ambitious, is both a feasible and a necessary goal. This remains the aim.

Recently, a strategic advisory panel set up by the World Health Organisation (WHO) five years ago released a report of a three-year study on benefits, future scenarios and feasibility of malaria elimination. Among its key recommendations is improved access to high-quality people-centred health services, adequate financing and resourcing for malaria programmes as well as stronger engagement with communities.

Unfortunately, in the context of COVID-19, many of these recommendations will be unattainable in the short and medium term. Resources will be shifted to tackle the pandemic and community engagement initiatives will be reduced to a bare minimum to achieve social distancing. Moreover, access to health facilities may be reduced for people with other common diseases such as malaria.

This will mean there will be many more deaths from malaria and other diseases.

This has happened before. Evidence from Africa’s fight against Ebola suggests that during outbreaks, many more people are indirectly killed by other diseases such as malaria, HIV and tuberculosis than by the outbreak itself.

African health authorities must therefore earnestly guard against such outcomes, and create a more rational response.

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