The WHO is concerned that it will not achieve the objectives set in the fight against malaria. Mortality rates are expected to rise sharply again in 2020 as resources are redirected to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
The latest report from the World Health Organization (WHO) on malaria sees positive long-term developments. While in the early 2000s as many as 700,000 people died annually from the tropical disease, the figure has now dropped to just over 400,000. According to the WHO’s estimates, 409,000 people died last year, out of a total of almost 229 million malaria infections.
But progress is faltering. In the past year, the annual mortality rate has dropped only slightly. The number of infected people has risen again, if not much. In the report’s submission, Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s Regional Director for Africa, warned: “If we stay at our current rate, we will miss the global targets for 2030.”
According to the WHO, by 2030 there should be 90% fewer cases of infections and deaths compared to 2015. Furthermore, 35 countries should be completely malaria-free.
One of the reasons why the targets appear to be unattainable is the coronavirus pandemic, which is further harming the world’s healthcare systems and disrupting supply chains. The fear is growing that the figures will rise again this year.
More deaths over malaria
The steps needed to curb the pandemic have implications for the fight against malaria. Disruptions in diagnoses and spread of mosquito nets, as well as less access to medication for people who are ill, make treatment more difficult.
Moeti has acknowledged that data coming from Africa is volatile. “By the end of 2020, more people will have died of malaria than COVID-19.” The WTO’s regional director called on donors and politicians to take action. “I think the question is, why is there so much alarm with an acute event like COVID-19 or Ebola? And why is it so normal and so normal that hundreds of thousands of children and other people die from malaria? Every year?”
Moeti said the WTO did not have the resources to step up the fight against malaria. In 2019, $ 3 billion (€ 2.5 billion) was made available worldwide, although $ 5.7 billion is needed to fight the disease effectively. Must emphasize that economies without malaria can grow faster by 1.3 percentage points.
Investments are urgently needed
Add to this the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. Moeti described the decline in productivity: “Sub-Saharan Africa is being driven into a recession for the first time in 25 years.” Poor health systems in African countries are also to blame for the fight against malaria, she said. Additional funds will have to be raised, and the death toll needs to be reduced. In 2019, Africa was responsible for the majority of 384,000 malaria deaths. It does not have to be, Moeti said.
Peter Sands, executive director of The Global Fund for Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, said it was urgently needed not to lose sight of other healthcare despite the coronary crisis. “We are now seeing a lot of attention to health due to the pandemic. A new virus is causing huge economic damage. But getting rid of a known pathogen also has huge costs for the malaria parasites,” Sands told DW. .
Children are the most important victims of malaria
$ 3 billion a year is a shockingly small amount, given the fact that children are particularly at risk for malaria. According to the WHO report, 31% of children under the age of five still do not receive drugs known as antipyretics to prevent or reduce fever when they become ill.
The figure was only 36% higher ten years ago. There is also the time factor. “If a toddler has a fever, it’s about quick treatment,” Sands said. Corona made the treatment more difficult. “If a health worker is sick or isolated, there is no plan b,” Sands explained.
Because CIVID-19 has negatively affected so many regions in this way, between 20,000 and 100,000 more people could die from malaria in sub-Saharan Africa this year, Pedro Alonso, director of the WHO’s global malaria program, told DW. To date, approximately 51,000 people in Africa have died as a result of COVID-19 complications.
The WHO estimated the number of deaths from malaria much higher in March when the pandemic broke out. There were fears that collateral damage due to an uncontrolled corona spread could cause up to 200,000 additional deaths in malaria. “We could fend it off with more campaigns,” he said.
COVID-19 so far appears to be less devastating to Africa than initially feared. “I therefore hope that we should protect the virus not only as a challenge to what we have achieved so far, but also as a challenge to what can be achieved,” Peter Sands said.
“We need to set our sights and say the same thing we said about COVID-19, namely that no one is left behind,” Sands added.
Global mortality rates fall
The WHO considers it positive that half of all countries affected by malaria are on the verge of eradicating the disease. One important step was the use of neat, impregnated nets, which effectively prevent bites from the Anopheles mosquito. 2.7 billion nets were distributed within 20 years. 21 million children received help to prevent the disease. “These are real achievements. But we have not yet reached our goal,” said WHO Pedro Alonso.
There is also hope of a new vaccine now being tested in the pilot phase in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi. By November 2020, nearly half a million children had been vaccinated. The serum is thought to protect four out of ten young children from a potentially deadly malaria infection.
Uta Steinwehr contributed to this article translated from German