The COVID-19 pandemic has set global malaria control efforts back, especially in Africa, the World Health Organization says.
However, this year’s World Malaria Report says countries were able to lessen disruptions to prevention, testing and treatment.
In 2019, before the pandemic struck, there were 568,000 malaria deaths. Despite the pandemic and other humanitarian emergencies, WHO information shows concerted action by countries has prevented the worst potential impacts of COVID-19-related disruptions to malaria services.
WHO officials say the world has largely managed to salvage many of the gains made against malaria during the past 20 years.
Abdisalan Noor, head of the WHO Global Malaria Program’s Strategic Information unit, said malaria cases dramatically increased in the first year of the pandemic. However, he said the number of cases last year remained largely the same as in 2020.
“Overall, however, the pandemic and its related disruptions have led to increases in malaria burden over the last two years, and we estimate that about 63,000 deaths and about 13 million cases [were] attributed to disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.
Most deaths and cases have occurred in the WHO African region, Noor said, adding that progress in malaria control is continuing. For example, he said 11 countries with the world’s highest malaria levels have largely held the line against the disease during the pandemic. Among them are Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Mali and Tanzania,
Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, Noor said nearly 300 million insecticide-treated bed nets were distributed to susceptible families. Bed nets are regarded as the most important tool against malaria, and their declining effectiveness is of concern.
Noor cited growing insecticide resistance and households’ decreasing retention of bed nets as major problems.
“In particular, because of the physical durability of the bed net itself as well as the maintenance of the bed net in the household … we are not getting the gains we would have hoped for from the ITN [insecticide-treated net], which essentially means that given that mass campaigns have been every three years, we have a considerable period between campaigns when people are not receiving effective protection,” he said.
WHO officials consider the current setback as a temporary glitch on the road to global malaria elimination. They say key opportunities, such as a new generation of malaria control tools, could help accelerate progress toward this goal.
They say long-lasting bed nets with new insecticide combinations and other innovations in vector control are in the offing, and by late next year, the world’s first malaria vaccine will be offered to millions of children. Also, they add, other lifesaving malaria vaccines are in development.