The coronavirus pandemic has hampered decades of progress against a deadly parasitic disease – disrupting health services and leading to tens of thousands more malaria-related deaths around the world, the World Health Organization said on Monday.
There were an estimated 241 million malaria cases and 627,000 related deaths globally in 2020, 14 million more cases and 69,000 more deaths than in 2019, according to the latest World Malaria Report from the United States. ‘WHO. Of those additional deaths, about two-thirds of the total – 47,000 – were linked to disruptions in the mechanisms for preventing, diagnosing and treating malaria, and the vast majority occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the report.
Still, WHO officials expressed some relief that a “doomsday scenario” predicted by the organization did not materialize.
“The first message is a message of good news,” Dr Pedro Alonso, director of the WHO Global Malaria Program, said in a statement. âThrough urgent and relentless efforts, we can say that the world has successfully averted the worst-case scenario of death from malaria. “
At the start of the pandemic, the WHO predicted that malaria deaths could potentially double in 2020, but emergency measures implemented by many countries have avoided this worst-case scenario, according to the organization.
Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for about 95 percent of all malaria cases and 96 percent of all related deaths in 2020 – with about 80 percent of deaths among children under 5, according to the report.
The increase in malaria-related deaths is due to the combined effects of the pandemic and the timing of the pandemic, according to the study. Although significant gains were made in the fight against the disease from 2000 to 2017 – a 27% reduction in the incidence of cases and a 51% reduction in the death rate – progress had plateaued by the end. of this period, according to the report. .
“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the global gains against malaria had stabilized,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement, acknowledging the efforts countries had made. deployed to avoid an apocalyptic scenario.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, about three-quarters of insecticide-treated bednets had been distributed in malaria-endemic countries by the end of 2020 as planned, according to the report. Thirteen countries in the Sahel sub-region of Africa were able to provide an additional 11.8 million children with preventive antimalarial drugs during the 2020 rainy season, compared to that of 2019.
WHO also credited six countries in the Greater Mekong region of Southeast Asia for their “impressive decline” in the number of malaria cases, while noting that China and El Salvador have been certified by the organization as malaria free in 2021 and that Iran has achieved three consecutive years of zero indigenous cases. in 2020.
“Now we must harness that same energy and commitment to reverse the setbacks caused by the pandemic and accelerate the pace of progress against this disease,” Ghebreyesus said.
Despite all these achievements, however, the WHO Africa region saw a 12% increase in malaria-related deaths in 2020 compared to the previous year, according to the report.
To build on previous gains, WHO called on countries to ensure more equitable access to all health services, by strengthening primary health care and stimulating national and international investment. Current funding levels – about $ 3.3 billion in 2020 – will need to more than triple, to reach $ 10.3 billion per year by 2030, according to the report.
The organization also called the innovation âa key strategy to accelerate progress,â noting that in October, WHO began recommending a new âRTS, Sâ vaccine for children living in sub-Saharan Africa to reduce transmission of malaria.
“While African countries have rallied to the challenge and avoided the worst predictions of the COVID-19 fallout, the pandemic’s ripple effect is still translating into thousands of lives lost to malaria,” said Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, in a statement. . âAfrican governments and their partners must step up their efforts so that we do not lose more ground in the face of this preventable disease. ”