Category Archives: COVID-19

Tropical Diseases and the World Health Assembly 73rd Meeting

If it were not difficult enough to guide global health during a pandemic, some world leaders are trying to deflect attention from the real dangers at hand to score on their petty political concerns. In the meantime, we need to focus on what tropical health and disease issues may actually be coming under consideration at the virtual WHA 73.

Agenda item 3 (A73/CONF./1 Rev.1) or “COVID-19 response Draft resolution” directly addresses the concerns of many that other major deadly diseases and essential services should not be further neglected. The large group of resolution proponents urge countries and organizations to,

“Maintain the continued functioning of the health system in all relevant aspects, in accordance with national context and priorities, necessary for an effective public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic and other ongoing epidemics, and the uninterrupted and safe provision of population and individual level services, for, among others, communicable diseases, including by undisrupted vaccination programmes, neglected tropical diseases, noncommunicable diseases, mental health, mother and child health and sexual and reproductive health and promote improved nutrition for women and children, recognizing in this regard the importance of increased domestic financing and development assistance where needed in the context of achieving UHC.”

In Provisional agenda item 23 (A73/32) “Progress reports by the Director-General” we find updates on guinea worm eradication and the burden of snakebite envenoming. The report notes the situation in 2019, which is a far cry from the millions of cases in the 1980d when the dracunculiasis eradication effort was launched. “In 2019, three countries reported a total of 53 human indigenous cases of dracunculiasis (guinea-worm disease), namely, Angola (one case), Chad (48 cases) and South Sudan (four cases), from a total of 28 villages. Cameroon reported one human case, probably imported from Chad.”

It is important to note that, “The global dracunculiasis eradication campaign is based on both community and country-focused interventions,” where community members play an important role in surveillance and notification. This includes at-risk and border areas, as is being done in Cameroon. The challenge of human Dracunculus medinensis infection in dogs continues and points to the importance of One Health in the control and elimination of NTDs. Surveillance is not cheap, and the report stresses that funds are still needed so that international partners can continue to ensure that the last case of guinea worm is detected and contained.

Moving from the smaller serpent to the larger variety, the report recalls the May 2018 World Health Assembly resolution WHA71.5 on addressing the burden of snakebite envenoming. A global strategy, “Snakebite envenoming: a strategy for prevention and control” was launched in  in May 2019. The WHO Secretariat has “fostered international efforts to improve the availability, accessibility and affordability of safe and effective antivenoms for all, through assessments of antivenom manufacturing, training programs and stockpile procedures.

Finally, provisional agenda item 11.8 (A73/8) addresses a “Draft road map for neglected tropical diseases 2021–2030.” This builds on resolution WHA66.12 (2013) on WHO’s earlier road map for accelerating work to overcome the global impact of neglected tropical diseases (2012–2020). The proposed interventions build on important principles including:

  1. Tackling neglected tropical diseases through support of the vision of universal health coverage
  2. Adopting grassroots approaches that enable access to some of the world’s poorest, hard-to reach communities and people affected by complex emergencies
  3. Monitoring progress against neglected tropical diseases as a litmus test of progress towards the achievement of universal health coverage

The report notes that “40 countries, territories and areas have eliminated at least one neglected tropical disease,” most notably dracunculiasis (as mentioned above, lymphatic filariasis and trachoma. Although “substantive progress has been made since 2012, it is evident that not all of the 2020 targets will be met.” Hence, a new draft road map for neglected tropical diseases for 2021–2030 is required. The three pillars supporting the new roadmap are outlined in the attached figure.

It is good to know that the 73rd World Health Assembly will not be completely overshadowed by COVID-19 and politics. Efforts to sustain and improve NTD control and elimination must not be jeopardized.

Zero Malaria Starts after Lockdown?

The novel 2019 coronavirus, also known as COVID-19 and SARS-COV2, is casting a heavy shadow over the 2020 World Malaria Day. People are trying to remain upbeat declaring the tagline “zero malaria starts with me,” but nothing can hide the fear that the current pandemic will both disrupt the current delivery of essential malaria preventive and treatment services, but will have longer term impacts on malaria funding and our capacity to learn new ways to reach malaria elimination goals. As we can see in the graphic to the right, accessible, lifesaving, community-based services may be especially hard hit.

Another ironic image is the indoor residual spray (IRS) team member with a face mask needed for protection from the insecticides being sprayed. When will such teams be able to go back into homes? When can household members actually pack out their belongings so that spraying can commence? When will such masks not be needed for intensive care COVID-19 case management instead?

WHO is urging “countries to move quickly to save lives from malaria in sub-Saharan Africa” because “New analysis supports the WHO call to minimize disruptions to malaria prevention and treatment services during the COVID-19 pandemic.” This will be difficult in high burden countries like Nigeria that are already on lockdown with over 1,000 coronavirus cases detected already. Modeling by WHO and partners has projected, “Severe disruptions to insecticide-treated net campaigns and in access to antimalarial medicines could lead to a doubling in the number of malaria deaths in sub-Saharan Africa this year compared to 2018.”

The Global Malaria Program offers guidance for tailoring malaria interventions to the present circumstances. Great concern is drawn from previous epidemic situations when observing that, “it is essential that other killer diseases, such as malaria, are not ignored. We know from the recent Ebola outbreak in west Africa that a sudden increased demand on fragile health services can lead to substantial increases in morbidity and mortality from other diseases, including malaria. The COVID-19 pandemic could be devastating on its own – but this devastation will be substantially amplified if the response undermines the provision of life-saving services for other diseases.”

Specifically, GMP recommends that national malaria programs should ensure the following:

  • a focal point for malaria is a member of the National COVID-19 Incident Management Team.
  • continued engagement with all relevant national COVID-19 stakeholders and partners.
  • continued access to and use of recommended insecticide-treated mosquito nets (ITNs)
  • continuation of planned targeted indoor residual spraying (IRS)
  • early care-seeking for fever and suspected malaria by the general population to prevent a spike in severe malaria
  • access to case management services in health facilities and communities with diagnostic confirmation through rapid diagnostic tests [RDTs]
  • treatment of confirmed malaria cases with approved protocols
  • continued delivery of planned preventive services normally provided to specific target populations (SMC, IPTi, IPTp)
  • the safety of all malaria personnel and their clients in the process of carrying out the above interventions

In editorial in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene by Yanow and Good address the damaging longer term impact of the present shutdown. “The impacts of research shutdowns will be felt long after the pandemic. Many scientists study diseases that do not share the same obvious urgency as COVID-19 and yet take a shocking toll on human life. For example, malaria infects more than 200 million people and takes the lives of nearly half a million people, mostly young children, each year.1 During laboratory closures and without clinical studies, there will be no progress toward treating and preventing malaria: no progress toward new drugs, vaccines, or diagnostics.”

The case for continuing malaria services to save hundreds of thousands of lives is not difficult to make. The actual implementation during lockdowns and quarantines is a management challenge. The importance of malaria testing to provide patients with appropriate care for the right disease is crucial. The question is whether in resource strapped endemic countries these decisions and management arrangements can be made in a timely fashion and for the long term whether the next generation of research can proceed with much needed new medicines and technologies.

COVID19 Challenges for African Researchers

Not surprisingly COVID-19 related travel restrictions and bans now occur throughout the world, and for African researchers, this means inability to travel for research related collaborations, planning meetings and conferences. Thus, it becomes necessary to ask, “What can we do here at home,” especially considering increasing restrictions on local movement and gatherings.

In the very short time since COVID-19 was finally and officially recognized in China, many research articles have been published. Although these obviously focus on China, they raise possible research questions that need to be addressed in Africa, especially those countries still at the early stages of the epidemic.

Obviously, studies on the clinical management are needed, and one group of Chinese researchers are examining “biological products have broadly applied in the prevention and treatment of severe epidemic diseases, they are promising in blocking novel coronavirus infection,” especially based on reports from previous coronavirus experiences like SARS and MERS.[1] Other studies have examined the role of managing blood glucose levels[2], anticoagulant treatment[3] and the potential of antiviral treatment,[4] among others. What aspects of clinical management will become important to African patients’ survival?

In the process of requesting adequate diagnostic, monitoring and treatment supplies and equipment generally for the country, the tertiary and research hospitals need to ensure they have made requests for the equipment and supplies that are needed not just to provide life-saving treatment, but also to test appropriate approaches in the local setting. Each setting is different and must be studied because already there are anecdotal reports of younger age groups being affected by severe disease in the USA compared to earlier reports from China.

Taking a lesson from the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, there is need to study how COVID-19 will affect the delivery of health care, especially malaria services. Patrick Walker and colleagues[5] modeled the effects of health systems disruption on malaria including challenges in receiving based treatment when clinics were overwhelmed, seen as possible sources of disease and finally shut down as health workers themselves died. Outreach services like insecticide-treated net distribution were also stopped, and the efforts of community health workers were curtailed. To what extent is that happening with COVID-19?

Until there are proven drugs and vaccines, it is extremely important to learn about local epidemiology[6] in order to develop appropriate strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This effort should involve researchers from many disciplines such as public health specialists, anthropologists, sociologists, educationists, and psychologists.

While the medical research mentioned above is carried out in hospitals and clinics, people conducting social and epidemiological studies ideally should be in the community where we can observe people washing their hands or not, gathering in groups or not, and finding out why they do these things. We need formative research to help develop health education, and at the same time ensure social and educational scientists can gather information to evaluate whether the health education as appropriate and worked.

Likewise, research is needed on health systems[7] and must involve political scientists, economists, public administrators, and of course public health specialists, also. A great danger exists for people who cannot keep a social distance from themselves such as those incarcerated in prison and living in camps for refugees and internally displaced people,[8] a common problem throughout the continent. They too need to get into the organizations and systems that provide care and learn what the policy makers and decision makers are thinking.

As Bronwyn Bruton has observed,[9] “Some 40 percent of Africans live in water-stressed environments in which obtaining access to clean water—let alone soap—is an insurmountable daily hurdle, and for those populations, even simple measures to prevent the spread of the virus, such as frequent handwashing, will be out of reach.” In addition he asks difficult questions about what happens to children who are home and cannot go to school, the vast numbers of people in the informal economy who cannot rely on a salary, if they stay home, and the many people in conflict zones. These are questions that urgently need to be studied in Africa.

Answers to our COVID-19 research questions are needed urgently, probably much sooner than funding can be found to support such research.  The question for our African research colleagues is what can be done now with resources at hand in an environment where movement is restricted? We will definitely need speedy responses from our Institutional Ethics Review Boards and be creative in our use of research methods.

Roxana Elliott[10] reports that data collection in the diverse African region “is difficult, especially when measuring statistics such as mobile penetration, which require face-to-face data collection in order to include those who cannot be reached via mobile. Language barriers, lack of infrastructure, and the sheer number of people throughout Sub-Saharan Africa make collecting face-to-face data nearly impossible due to cost and time constraints, especially in rural areas.” She, therefore, suggests that mobile-based surveying methodologies can alleviate these issues. She also recommends a country-by-country approach, and hence we see that in 2017 an estimate of 32% of the population had a smartphone 48% a basic phone, and 20% no phone.

How can social and health researchers design studies using this mobile resource to answer vital COVID-19 questions in the nearest future? If our students are now at home, can they, for example, be contacted to observe, at a safe distance, the human health related actions in their communities? Can they interview family members to learn why people practice prevention or not? Can they relate family experiences seeking health services for suspected respiratory illness?  Can they report on the water supply situation in the rural and urban areas where they are staying?

There are the questions which African colleagues can debate at a proper social distance (via phone, zoom, Skype, WhatsApp, and others), and come up with creative ways to find answers to prevent a worsening epidemic in Africa.

References

[1] Yan CX, Li J, Shen X, Luo L, Li Y, Li MY. [Biological Product Development Strategies for Prevention and Treatment of Coronavirus Disease 2019. Article in Chinese] Sichuan Da Xue Xue Bao Yi Xue Ban. 2020 Mar;51(2):139-145. doi: 10.12182/20200360506. (English abstract in PubMed).

[2] Ma WX, Ran XW. [The Management of Blood Glucose Should be Emphasized in the Treatment of COVID-19. Article in Chinese]. Sichuan Da Xue Xue Bao Yi Xue Ban. 2020 Mar;51(2):146-150. doi: 10.12182/20200360606.

[3] Tang N, Bai H, Chen X, Gong J, Li D, Sun Z.Anticoagulant treatment is associated with decreased mortality in severe coronavirus disease 2019 patients with coagulopathy. J Thromb Haemost. 2020 Mar 27. doi: 10.1111/jth.14817. [Epub ahead of print]

[4] Wu J, Li W, Shi X, Chen Z, Jiang B, Liu J, Wang D, Liu C, Meng Y, Cui L, Yu J, Cao H, Li L. Early antiviral treatment contributes to alleviate the severity and improve the prognosis of patients with novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).J Intern Med. 2020 Mar 27. doi: 10.1111/joim.13063. [Epub ahead of print]

[5] Patrick G T Walker, Michael T White, Jamie T Griffin, Alison Reynolds, Neil M Ferguson, Azra C Ghani. Malaria morbidity and mortality in Ebola-affected countries caused by decreased health-care capacity, and the potential effect of mitigation strategies: a modelling analysis. www.thelancet.com/infection Published online April 24, 2015 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1473-3099(15)70124-6

[6] Luan RS, Wang X, Sun X, Chen XS, Zhou T, Liu QH, Lü X, Wu XP, Gu DQ, Tang MS, Cui HJ, Shan XF, Ouyang J, Zhang B, Zhang W, Sichuan University Covid-ERG.[Epidemiology, Treatment, and Epidemic Prevention and Control of the Coronavirus Disease 2019: a Review. Article in Chinese]. Sichuan Da Xue Xue Bao Yi Xue Ban. 2020 Mar;51(2):131-138. doi: 10.12182/20200360505.

[7] Philip Obaji, Kim Hjelmgaard and Chris Erasmus Coronavirus infections in Africa are rapidly rising. Its weak health systems may buckle. USA Today. Updated 27 March 2020, Accessed 29 March 2020. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2020/03/27/coronavirus-africa-preparedness-rising-covid-19-infections/5076620002/

[8] Nick Turse. In West African Coronavirus Hotspot, War Has Left 700,000 Homeless and Exposed. The Intercept. March 26 2020, 5:33 p.m. https://theintercept.com/2020/03/26/burkina-faso-africa-coronavirus/

[9] Bronwyn Bruton. What does the coronavirus mean for Africa?. Atlantic Council. Tue, Mar 24, 2020. https://atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/africasource/what-does-the-coronavirus-mean-for-africa/

[10] Roxana Elliott. Mobile Phone Penetration Throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. GeoPoll (In Market Research, Tech & Innovation). Posted July 8, 2019 https://www.geopoll.com/blog/mobile-phone-penetration-africa/