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.

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