Leading malaria researchers including Burnet Institute Deputy Director and Head of the Malaria Immunity and Vaccines Laboratory, Professor James Beeson, are concerned about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on access to treatment and prevention of malaria.
The concerns are outlined in a commentary published in the journal BMC Medicine by members of the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence on Malaria Elimination, with co-authors from Australia, PNG, Indonesia and Malaysia.
COVID-19 has led to millions of infections, and hundreds of thousands of deaths, but how the pandemic has affected other diseases has received little attention to date.
“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the control of infectious diseases is substantial, undermining established programmes addressing HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, and childhood vaccination,” Professor Beeson and his co-authors write.
They list several problems specific to malaria treatment and prevention, including issues with supply chains for insecticide-treated nets; lower attendance at health clinics because of fear of exposure to COVID-19; not enough resources to protect frontline health care workers from COVID-19; and supply chain issues with drug and other medicines.
“In this environment, diverting human and financial resources to deal with the emergence and spread of COVID-19 presents a huge threat to malaria control that could reverse recent gains in many malaria endemic countries.”
Over the past 20 years, major gains have been made in reducing the global burden of malaria, with 11 countries achieving malaria elimination.
In 2018, there were an estimated 228 million cases of malaria globally, and over 400,000 deaths, most of which were of children under five.
The researchers warn that children and pregnant women will bear a “disproportionate burden of excess malaria mortality arising from COVID-19-related disruption of health systems and malaria control programmes”.
“Withdrawing successful interventions often results in rapid malaria resurgence, primarily threatening vulnerable young children and pregnant women,” they write.
Without a recommitment to malaria prevention, the researchers are concerned that many of the existing targets won’t be met.
They called for leaders to renew their commitments to goals including the reduction of malaria globally by more than 90 percent by 2030 (compared to 2015), the elimination of malaria from the Asia-Pacific by 2030, and the effective elimination of malaria from Africa by 2050.
“As we struggle with COVID-19 we call on the leaders of countries across the world to recommit to malaria elimination as an achievable and enduring public good. The broader goal of malaria eradication remains highly attractive,” the researchers write.
“In malaria-endemic countries, it is vital that measures are taken both to protect health workers and maintain malaria control activities.”
To read the full Opinion Article in BMC Medicine, click here.