Despite the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries around the world held the line in protecting historic gains against malaria this year, saving hundreds of thousands of lives, preserving fragile health systems, and keeping malaria at bay in countries with zero local cases.
However, long-term success in reaching a malaria-free world within a generation is far from assured, with the highest-burden countries in Africa struggling to make significant or consistent gains in the fight against malaria since 2016, according to the latest World Malaria Report published by the World Health Organization (WHO) today. The report confirmed that in 2019, 409,000 people died from malaria and there were 229 million malaria cases globally.
Dr Abdourahmane Diallo, CEO of the RBM Partnership to End Malaria, said this year, the fight against malaria got harder, but so did our resolve. Countries’ heroic efforts helped prevent a doubling of malaria deaths in sub-Saharan Africa this year and make continued strides towards elimination in Asia and the Americas. Long-term investments in the malaria fight are paying off during the pandemic. However, we need up-to-date data and to apply lessons from the COVID-19 response, innovating and adapting our approaches in real-time to have a maximum impact against malaria.
Thanks to countries’ unprecedented mobilization in the face of COVID-19, over 90% of life-saving malaria prevention campaigns scheduled for this year went ahead, helping avert the worst-case scenario of a doubling of malaria deaths in sub-Saharan Africa in 2020 alone. However, malaria cases and deaths are projected to increase in 2020 due to disruptions in access to essential malaria diagnosis and treatment services across affected countries, ranging from 5-50%.
“Malaria’s impact in 2020 would have been much worse if not for the incredible efforts by countries and their partners, but the reality is that every malaria death today is avoidable. We have seen how the malaria toll, especially among young children, increases during health crises. We must continue to tackle malaria and COVID together to save more lives and protect health systems,” Dr. Diallo added.
Despite COVID-19’s rapid spread of to all parts of the world, countries continue to make progress towards zero malaria, with 27 registering less than 100 cases in 2019, up from six in 2000. Several of them, including China, El Salvador, and Malaysia, have successfully kept malaria at bay in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, putting them on track for malaria-free certification next year. Since 2000, 10 countries have been certified malaria-free by WHO.
According to this year’s World Malaria Report, the WHO’s South-East Asia region is on track to achieve a 40% reduction in malaria cases and deaths by 2020, a global target set in 2016—largely thanks to remarkable year-over-year progress in India and in the Greater Mekong Subregion.
Professor Yongyuth Yuthavong, RBM Partnership Board Member, malaria scientist, and former Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand, said the Greater Mekong Subregion has made tremendous progress towards elimination, even in the face of growing insecticide and drug resistance, reducing malaria cases and deaths by over 90% since 2000. “This achievement is in no small part thanks to the development and scale-up of life-saving tools many of which were not available 20 years ago, and cross-border collaboration that improved and increased surveillance. Today, we must continue investing in innovations that will help us stay ahead of a changing vector and parasite.”
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the global malaria community has shown unprecedented collaboration in mobilizing additional resources, addressing supply chain disruptions of life-saving malaria interventions and personal protective equipment, resolving bottlenecks in campaign delivery, and responding to upsurges in malaria.
COVID-19 has shown the critical importance of having timely, accurate, and localized data and innovation to effectively fight infectious disease. This is necessary to make critical strategy pivots and to target limited resources in response to new challenges.
Dr Elizabeth Chizema, RBM Partnership Board Member and former Director of Zambia’s National Malaria Elimination Programme, said the global malaria community must make the most of the opportunity to use real-time data to inform real-time decision making. “This approach, catalyzed and facilitated by the RBM Partnership, will help prioritize limited resources and further support countries’ resilience in the face of the unexpected barriers that can arise when fighting malaria,” she said.
Since 2000, thanks to the committed global partnership, the world has made tremendous progress against malaria, saving 7.6 million lives and preventing 1.5 billion new infections.
In addition to saving lives, investments in malaria over the past two decades strengthened health systems, improved economies, and increased global health security. These advances also drastically reduced the burden of the disease on health systems while boosting health care worker training and adding lab capacities and disease surveillance, helping them better respond to new health threats.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout further threaten long-term progress towards malaria elimination. The commitments and actions countries make in the next few years will be crucial for getting back on track to achieve the ambitious and realistic malaria reduction targets, especially in Africa, a continent that carries over 90% of the global malaria burden.
“We cannot let the COVID-19 pandemic distract us from redoubling our efforts to protect hard-fought gains against malaria and accelerating efforts to end this disease within a generation. Ending malaria will also enable countries to manage other diseases, as well as current and emerging health threats. With ongoing commitment, optimized use of current resources and new investments, we can deliver on the promise of a malaria-free world,” said Prof Maha Taysir Barakat, RBM Partnership Board Chair.