Covid-19 threatens to destroy 20 years of progress against malaria

By Isabel Saco

Geneva, May 8 (efe-epa).- The pandemic has interrupted vital work against malaria which could leave 500 million people unprotected as the health industry is focusing on producing Covid-19 tests, Pedro Alonso Fernández of the World Health Organization warns.

Work against malaria, which affects parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia, is one of the many collateral victims of the coronavirus crisis which could see progress against the disease set back by 20 years.

Alonso, director of the WHO’s global malaria programme who has been investigating the virus for more than 35 years, says in an interview with Efe that infectious diseases had been forgotten by western countries which focused on other chronic illnesses and are now paying the consequences.

QUESTION: How has the pandemic altered work against malaria and what could be the consequences?

ANSWER: In Africa, the pandemic is delayed, but we fear that it will develop as in other areas of the world, with a sharp increase in cases, deaths and disruption of health systems. We commissioned a series of studies to estimate the impact of Covid considering interruptions in the distribution of insecticide-impregnated mosquito nets or in access to diagnoses and treatments.The most negative scenario but which we consider highly feasible indicates that in Africa the number of malaria deaths could double to 750,000 or 760,000 this year. It is a pessimistic scenario, very worrying and that would put us back to where we were more than 20 years ago.We are also seeing the effect of border closures and decreased production of certain supplies, so we are monitoring the production of derivatives or combinations with artemisinin (a group of drugs used against malaria) that are our first line of treatment, but the greatest concern is the interruption of rapid tests for the diagnosis of malaria.Some of the world’s largest producers are transferring their capacity to producing Covid-19 diagnostics, which in a matter of weeks could pose a major general shortage problem. In addition, we are receiving signs of an increase in malaria cases that could be related to lockdown measures and restrictions on mosquito net distribution and spraying campaigns, which can have a terrible impact on the fight against malaria and for this reason the WHO has issued directives to continue distributing mosquito nets without danger of spreading the coronavirus. We cannot leave a large part of the population unprotected against malaria, which is the greatest risk we face.

Q: How many people could potentially be affected?

A: Forty per cent of the global population lives in countries where malaria is transmitted. In Africa, we distribute 250 million mosquito nets annually that benefit more than 500 million people, who are the ones that would be left unprotected if the planned distributions are not made.

Q: You mentioned that producers of malaria tests are transferring their capacity to produce Covid-19 tests. What is the scale of this problem and where are those producers?

A: Sixty per cent of all the tests we use come from a United States supplier that intends to move all of its production to Covid. If we do not have access to these tests it would be a huge catastrophe, so we are negotiating with them and explaining that this is not the time to abandon the diagnosis of malaria, that if it is organised six months or a year in advance others could increase their capacity.

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