Published: July 30, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in millions of infections, hundreds of thousands of deaths and major societal disruption due to lockdowns and other restrictions introduced to limit disease spread. Relatively little attention has been paid to understanding how the pandemic has affected treatment, prevention and control of malaria, which is a major cause of death and disease and predominantly affects people in less well-resourced settings.
Recent successes in malaria control and elimination have reduced the global malaria burden, but these gains are fragile and progress has stalled in the past 5 years. Withdrawing successful interventions often results in rapid malaria resurgence, primarily threatening vulnerable young children and pregnant women. Malaria programmes are being affected in many ways by COVID-19. For prevention of malaria, insecticide-treated nets need regular renewal, but distribution campaigns have been delayed or cancelled. For detection and treatment of malaria, individuals may stop attending health facilities, out of fear of exposure to COVID-19, or because they cannot afford transport, and health care workers require additional resources to protect themselves from COVID-19. Supplies of diagnostics and drugs are being interrupted, which is compounded by production of substandard and falsified medicines and diagnostics. These disruptions are predicted to double the number of young African children dying of malaria in the coming year and may impact efforts to control the spread of drug resistance. Using examples from successful malaria control and elimination campaigns, we propose strategies to re-establish malaria control activities and maintain elimination efforts in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is likely to be a long-term challenge. All sectors of society, including governments, donors, private sector and civil society organisations, have crucial roles to play to prevent malaria resurgence. Sparse resources must be allocated efficiently to ensure integrated health care systems that can sustain control activities against COVID-19 as well as malaria and other priority infectious diseases.
As we deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial that other major killers such as malaria are not ignored. History tells us that if we do, the consequences will be dire, particularly in vulnerable populations.