By Nuru Ahmed
As countries battle to bring the outbreak under control, efforts must also be maintained on other health emergencies and progress made against diseases such as malaria or polio preserved, the World Health Organization (WHO) urged.
Prior to the arrival of the novel coronavirus in Africa, WHO was stressing the need for countries to ensure the continuity of routine essential health services.
An overburdened health system not only undermines the effectiveness of the response to COVID-19 but may also undermine the response to a whole host of preventable threats to human health, the statement reads.
Even brief interruptions of vaccination make outbreaks more likely to occur, putting children and other vulnerable groups more at risk of life-threatening diseases.
Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO Regional Director for Africa urged all countries not to lose focus on the gains made in health as they adapt to tackle this new threat.
“We saw with the Ebola Virus Disease outbreak in West Africa that we lost more people to malaria, for instance than, we lost to the Ebola outbreak. Let us not repeat that with COVID-19,” she added.
WHO is supporting countries in all aspects of the COVID-19 response and has recently published guidelines for ensuring the continuation of critical health services, including immunization and anti-malaria campaigns. The guidelines stress the need for countries to take a dynamic approach that mitigates any unavoidable pause in vaccination campaigns.
The consequences of disrupting efforts to control malaria in Africa could be particularly grave. Current estimates suggest that sub-Saharan Africa accounted for approximately 93% of all malaria cases and 94% of deaths, mainly among children under five.
A new analysis by WHO and partners suggests that in a worst case scenario if malaria prevention and treatment services were severely disrupted as a result of COVID-19, the number of malaria deaths in 2020 in sub-Saharan Africa could double that of 2018.
“Africa has made significant progress over the past 20 years in stopping malaria from claiming lives. While COVID-19 is a major health threat, it’s critical to maintain malaria prevention and treatment programmes. The new modeling shows deaths could exceed 700 000 this year alone. We haven’t seen mortality levels like that in 20 years. We must not turn back the clock,” said Dr Moeti.
Countries like Benin, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Chad, Central African Republic, Uganda and Tanzania are continuing with their insecticide treated bed net campaigns and other important malaria prevention activities.