Covid-19 could undo the progress made against malaria – one of the world’s deadliest diseases

It is well documented that part of the devastating impact of Covid-19 is the way the pandemic is disrupting essential health services. In the UK and other countries with established health systems, routine appointments and operations have been delayed or cancelled, causing harm and distress to patients.

This disruption can be much more serious in less developed countries. Here, Covid-19 is threatening the progress made against some of the world’s deadly infectious diseases, such as malaria, according to the World Health Organization’s latest World Malaria Report.

Although many countries have managed to dramatically reduce the total number of malaria cases and deaths since 2000, progress in recent years has already stalled. And, in some countries, malaria – which is both preventable and treatable – is on the rise.

According to the World Malaria Report, the pandemic could set things back even further, undoing the progress made.

Partners, Comic Relief and GSK, who joined forces four years ago to support communities fighting malaria across Africa and the Greater Mekong region, have found that communities are using the lessons they’ve learned tackling malaria in their new fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, simultaneously protecting people from the devastating impact of both diseases.

Ruth Davison, Comic Relief’s chief executive, is proud of how the organisation has supported the fight against malaria over the past three decades. “It’s now more important than ever,” she says. “Through the work we support as part of our partnership with GSK, we have seen the impact Covid-19 is having on international organisations on the frontline of the battle, who are responding at record speeds to mitigate the impact of the virus on their vital work.

“But despite these strong efforts, it’s very worrying that recent reports show that, due to the impact of Covid-19 and other factors, progress in tackling malaria is now slowing. The WHO report is a stark reminder that we must keep up the fight against this disease – which disproportionately affects pregnant women and young children – throughout the pandemic and beyond.”

In Sierra Leone, west Africa, Covid-19 has added to the issues that already face the healthcare system – chronic underfunding, a shortage of qualified workers and a high burden of both infectious and chronic diseases.

One of the frontline organisations supported by Comic Relief and GSK is King’s Global Health Partnerships. King’s works in Connaught Hospital, Freetown’s busiest public hospital where it has applied the lessons from both its work to tackle malaria and the 2014 Ebola outbreak. The Ebola crisis indirectly increased the number of deaths caused by malaria, because people were scared to seek treatment at hospital. King’s is clear that training health workers and educating communities to encourage people to seek treatment when needed are crucial in the current fight against the pandemic.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, they have delivered specially designed training and mentoring for more than 200 frontline health workers. They have also established a new team of screeners, now stationed at the hospital’s main gate, to monitor for suspected Covid-19 cases and enable a fast and safe isolation process that has protected the rest of the hospital, keeping it open for thousands of people to continue to receive care including malaria tests, diagnosis and treatment.

Laura Hucks, director of King’s Global Health Partnerships, says: “In the countries where we work, the absence of a strong health system means that there is an extreme vulnerability to the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact. I’m really proud that we are bringing the skills and expertise of King’s to work in solidarity with our partners on the frontlines of the response”.

Comic Relief and GSK have been working in partnership for four years to fight malaria and improve health systems in Ghana, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and the Greater Mekong. Thanks to the partnership, 1.4 million people now have increased knowledge about malaria prevention and treatment.

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