The World Malaria Day 2020 was marked on Saturday on a low-key, overshadowed by the global attention on the fight against Covid-19.
The tagline for this year’s World Malaria Day, “Zero malaria begins with me”, indicates an aggressive campaign to keep malaria high on the political agenda and mobilise more resources towards the fight against the killer disease.
But as countries now focus energy and resources on containing the coronavirus, achieving the global target to end malaria by 2030 has become even more unlikely, health experts said.
They said the coronavirus disruptions have made it difficult to script an endgame for malaria due to delays in mosquito spraying, bed nets distribution and scarcity of anti-malaria drugs.
While the coronavirus is overshadowing malaria, the longstanding malaria treatment drug, chloroquine, was touted as a potential antidote to the pneumonia-like disease.
Although many experts have disputed its efficacy against coronavirus, there are fears that a chloroquine-based COVID-19 vaccine could lead to shortage of the drug for malaria patients.
The target is to reduce malaria cases and deaths by 90 per cent and to make at least 35 countries free of malaria.
Though monumental progress has been made, malaria still remains lethal, especially in Africa.
A 2019 survey, Malaria Futures for Africa (MalaFa), found that countries in Africa are highly unlikely to meet the 2030 deadline if considerable changes did not occur in funding and delivery.
Finding the money and support to maintain the momentum towards the target would be more difficult now with the squeeze on government budgets due to the toll of lockdowns and restrictions on economies.
Donor support which was seen as waning, especially in Africa, will further be slashed – creating more funding gaps that could erode any gains made towards ending malaria, according to Henry Osondu, a public health expert.
The U.S. which is the largest donor to the World Health Organisation (WHO) halted funding for the UN agency after accusing it of complicity with China in the COVID-19 outbreak.
The battle against coronavirus is disrupting not just efforts towards meeting the 2030 malaria target, countries with weak health systems in Africa are at risk of abandoning the fight against other diseases that can take a deadlier toll.
The WHO statistics from Africa’s Ebola outbreak showed that more people died of other diseases, including malaria, than from Ebola itself, due to lack of access to treatment.
Governments in Africa working with partners such as the WHO are focusing efforts on tackling the pandemic while malaria which has proven to be more fatal in the continent is sidelined, according to health authorities.
Africa has more than 28,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with over 1,200 deaths in about three months into the outbreak. But in 2018 alone, there were 213 million malaria cases and 360,000 related deaths in the continent, accounting for over 90 per cent of global cases.
The WHO warned that if focus on slowing the spread of the new coronavirus leads to a reduction by three-quarters of access to anti-malarial medicines, the number of deaths to the mosquito-borne disease could double to 769,000 this year in Africa.
The global health agency warned that the battle against malaria in Africa could be set back by 20 years due to the massive strain on health systems by the pandemic.
Malaria, Nightmare of slum dwellers
In Sub-Saharan Africa where malaria still claims the life of a child every two minutes, millions are living in slums and overcrowded informal settlements that do not have toilets and are surrounded by stagnant water bodies, making them a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
As many living in such environments are confined to their homes due to lockdowns against COVID-19, an increase in the spread of disease has become imminent especially now the rainy season is about to start.
Access to anti-malaria drugs and mosquito-treated nets will also dwindle due to the restriction on movement and government’s attention on COVID-19.