Since the coronavirus first took the world by storm in early 2020, it has understandably almost monopolised the world’s attention. But this has taken the spotlight away from other diseases such as malaria. For World Malaria Day on April 25, FRANCE 24 examined the challenges to overcome in the fight against this disease.
Malaria kills more than 400,000 people every year, mainly in Africa – with total cases estimated at 229 million cases of malaria worldwide in 2019. Children under 5 are the most vulnerable age group, accounting for some 67 percent of malaria deaths in 2019.
These statistics are especially worrying given that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted anti-malarial programmes, which risks causing tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.
In this context, FRANCE 24 spoke to Olivia Ngou, director of the NGO Impact Santé Afrique (African Health Impact) and co-founder of the anti-malaria group CS4ME (Civil Society for Malaria Elimination).
What has been the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the fight against malaria?
It’s had a very serious negative impact, especially when it comes to prevention. In particular, a lot of schemes to distribute mosquito nets were cancelled due to the focus on Covid-19. These campaigns are really essential, yet due to social-distancing measures it wasn’t possible to have people lining up to collect them. Consequently, millions of people were left unprotected during the rainy season in March 2020. Nevertheless, some countries such as Cameroon, Niger and Benin set up successful schemes to hand out nets by going to people’s homes.
How have countries’ health systems been affected?
They’ve been under a lot of strain with the diversion of resources to deal with Covid-19. A particular problem is that health systems have run out of rapid diagnostic tests for malaria, as test manufacturers have concentrated on Covid-19. There have also been tensions over the supplies of anti-malarial treatments in the context of the coronavirus crisis.
The pandemic has also caused a pronounced drop in the number of visits to health centres – even though mosquitos continue to bite. A lot of deaths attributed to Covid-19 may well have actually been caused by malaria, as the two diseases have a lot of symptoms in common. In Cameroon, official figures show 11,000 deaths linked to malaria, compared to the usual tally of 2,000 to 4,000. These are only the recorded numbers; many fear that the real death toll is a lot higher.
What about the drop in funding for the global fight against malaria?
For starters, it’s worth underlining that funding has stagnated since 2015. The top donor, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, won’t be affected because it’s budget is already set in stone until 2023.
But there are concerns that African countries in which malaria is endemic will reduce their funding because they had to spend so much money on Covid-19. That’s while many African researchers specialising in malaria have been asked to shift their focus towards Covid-19.
The US spent $11 billion (€9 billion) in 2020 to fund an anti-Covid vaccine. That’s almost four times more than the total annual budget for the fight against malaria.
Would such a colossal infusion of cash make it possible to completely eradicate malaria? Certainly it would give us a jab a lot more quickly, even if we know that vaccines against coronaviruses are a lot easier to develop than those against malaria or HIV.
About two years ago, the WHO launched an initiative to test malaria vaccines for children. Currently the ordinary process for developing a jab – which was obviously expedited for those against Covid-19 – takes about seven years. A similar change of procedure could speed up the development of anti-malaria vaccines.
What are the most promising innovations in the fight against malaria?
As well as the vaccine currently being tested, there is a new generation of mosquito nets – which should be effective against mosquitos that have become resistant to conventional insecticides. There are also promising new treatments, such as one that would be able to treat an uncomplicated case of malaria with just one tablet.
This article was translated from the original in French.