Since the coronavirus first conquered the world in early 2020, it has almost monopolized the world’s attention. But it took the spotlight off other diseases, like malaria. For World Malaria Day on April 25, FRANCE 24 examined the challenges to be overcome in the fight against this disease.
Malaria kills more than 400,000 people every year, mainly in Africa – with an estimated total of 229 million cases of malaria worldwide in 2019. Children under 5 are the most vulnerable age group, being responsible for about 67 percent of malaria deaths in 2019.
These statistics are of particular concern, as the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted antimalarial programs, which can cause tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.
In this context, FRANCE 24 spoke with 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 was the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in the fight against malaria?
This had a very serious negative impact, especially when it comes to prevention. In particular, many mosquito netting schemes have been canceled due to the focus on Covid-19. These campaigns are really essential, but due to the social distance measures it was not possible to have people lining up to collect them. Consequently, millions of people were left unprotected during the rainy season in March 2020. However, some countries like Cameroon, Niger and Benin have created successful schemes to distribute networks going to people’s homes.
How have countries’ health systems been affected?
They are under a lot of pressure with the diversion of resources to deal with Covid-19. A specific problem is that health systems have run out of rapid diagnostic tests for malaria, as test makers have focused on Covid-19. There were also tensions over the provision of antimalarial treatments in the context of the coronavirus crisis.
The pandemic has also caused a sharp drop in the number of visits to health centers – although mosquitoes continue to bite. Many deaths attributed to Covid-19 may well have been caused by malaria, as the two diseases have many symptoms in common. In Cameroon, official figures show 11,000 malaria-related deaths, compared to the usual 2,000 to 4,000 count. These are just the registered numbers; many fear that the actual number of deaths will be much higher.
And the drop in funding for the global fight against malaria?
To begin with, it is worth noting that funding has stagnated since 2015. The main donor, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, will not be affected because its budget is already set in stone by 2023.
But there are concerns that African countries where malaria is endemic will reduce their funding because they have had to spend a lot of money on Covid-19. This while many African researchers specializing in malaria have been asked to shift their focus to Covid-19.
The United States spent $ 11 billion (€ 9 billion) in 2020 to finance an anti-Covid vaccine. This is almost four times more than the total annual budget for the fight against malaria.
Would such a colossal infusion of money make it possible to eradicate malaria completely? That would certainly give us a much faster injection, even if we knew that coronavirus vaccines are much easier to develop than those against malaria or HIV.
About two years ago, WHO launched an initiative to test malaria vaccines in children. Currently, the normal process for developing a jab – which has obviously been accelerated for those against Covid-19 – takes about seven years. A similar change in procedure could accelerate the development of malaria vaccines.
What are the most promising innovations in the fight against malaria?
In addition to the vaccine under test, there is a new generation of mosquito nets – which should be effective against mosquitoes that have become resistant to conventional insecticides. There are also promising new treatments, such as one that would be able to treat a simple case of malaria with just one pill.