Lukanyo Mnyanda Editor: Business Day
World Health Organisation regional director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti. Picture: REUTERS/DENIS BALIBOUSE
World Health Organisation regional director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti. Picture: REUTERS/DENIS BALIBOUSE

Africa may see cases of malaria double to the highest level in 20 years if efforts to deal with the Covid-19 outbreak disrupt other health campaigns, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

In addition to the diversion of resources towards dealing with the coronavirus —  which has infected more than 25,000 people in the continent and killed about 1,200 — social distancing and other measures risk seeing countries overlooking a disease that was linked to about 360,000 deaths in 2018.

SA had the most Covid-19 infections in Africa though containment measures were showing signs of bending its curve, Matshidiso Moeti, director of WHO in Africa, said in a video conference on Thursday. As of Wednesday, SA had about 3,600 cases and 65 deaths, according to the latest data from the health department.

Countries should not lose focus on other health challenges of the coronavirus outbreak and must “maintain malaria interventions” to ensure the continent avoids a repeat of what happened with the Ebola outbreak, which saw a reversal of gains made fighting other diseases, she said.

If the current crisis stops the provision of insecticides, mosquito nets and medication, deaths from malaria may climb to the highest level since 2000, according to Moeti.

“We saw with Ebola virus disease outbreak in West Africa that we actually lost more people to diseases that we previously were managing to control like malaria, than we lost to the outbreak itself,” she said. “Let us not repeat that with Covid-19.” 

The WHO, which is still reeling from US President Donald Trump's decision to withhold funding, got a boost on Thursday when China said  it would give the organisation an extra $30m (R572m) to fight the disease. The donation from China, which has come under intense scrutiny over the origins of the virus, would be focused on strengthening developing nations' health systems, the Financial Times said.

The outbreak, which is still seen to be at the beginning stage in Africa, the world's poorest continent, has raised concerns that it will overwhelm fragile health systems that were already struggling to contain diseases such as measles, polio and HIV/Aids, in addition to malaria.

Children under 5 years  are the most vulnerable group to malaria, according to the World Economic Forum. Deaths from the disease have halved since 2000, the WEF has said, citing data from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Moeti said the WHO was concerned that efforts to deal with coronavirus were preventing people from accessing essential and life saving health services.

“Despite progress in immunisation, one in four African children are under-immunised,” she said. “To protect communities from diseases like measles, polio [and] yellow fever it’s imperative that routine immunisation continues.”

While campaigns may need to be postponed because of social distancing, “countries will need to rapidly and safely scale up these activities once the Covid-19 transmission is contained,” she said.  

“Malaria deaths could double from 2018 and this would be the highest since 2000. I urge and encourage all countries to maintain malaria interventions.”

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