The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned in its annual report on malaria that funding shortfalls and disruptions to treatment in sub-Saharan Africa as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic risks tens of thousands more lives being lost to the mosquito-borne disease.
The UN’s health agency in the document released on 30th November said it was concerned that even moderate disruptions in access to treatment could lead to a “considerable loss of life”.
The report found that a 10-percent disruption in access to effective anti-malarial treatment in sub-Saharan Africa could lead to 19,000 additional deaths. That number rose to 46,000 with a 25-percent disruption in access and 100,000 at 50-percent disruption.
“Progress has stalled,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “COVID-19 threatens to further derail our efforts to overcome malaria, particularly treating people with the disease. Despite the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on African economies, international partners and countries need to do more to ensure that the resources are there to expand malaria programmes which are making such a difference in people’s lives.”
The WHO’s latest world report on malaria, which mainly affects countries in Africa, shows progress against the disease had already slowed before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged earlier this year.
In 2019, there were 229 million cases of malaria worldwide, an annual figure that has remained almost unchanged over the past four years. Some 409,000 people died from the disease in 2019 compared with 411,000 in 2018.
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The UN health agency says funding is part of the problem. In 2000, African leaders signed the landmark Abuja Declaration pledging to reduce malaria deaths on the continent by 50 percent over a 10-year period.
The political commitment was followed by an abrupt increase in domestic and international funding which helped reduce the continent’s death toll from malaria by 44 percent.
But funding shortages have led to gaps in access to malaria-control measures with the WHO reporting the deficit in 2019 was $3bn from a target of $5.6bn.
“A better targeting of interventions, new tools and increased funding are needed to change the global trajectory of the disease and reach internationally-agreed targets,” the WHO said.
COVID-19 has emerged as an additional challenge because while most malaria prevention campaigns, such as treated sleeping nets continued without delays, the pandemic makes it more difficult for people with malaria to access the treatment they need.
According to the health agency’s projections, the 2020 global target for reductions in malaria case incidence will be missed by 37 percent and the mortality reduction target will be missed by 22 percent.
The report also shows 21 countries have eliminated malaria over the last 20 years; of these, 10 countries have been officially certified as malaria-free by the WHO.
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