At the start of the pandemic, many people feared that not only would COVID-19 itself be a disaster, but the lockdowns and other prevention methods would have an awful ripple effect: disrupting the fight against malaria in a catastrophic way.
A modeling analysis from the World Health Organization, which I shared here last year, found that annual malaria deaths in sub-Saharan Africa could double, returning to death rates not seen in over 20 years.
A year later, I’m happy to be able to report that this worst-case scenario, at least for now, has been avoided. This is thanks to the leadership of African countries, which quickly adapted their malaria programs to meet the challenges of the pandemic. Practicing social distancing and other safety measures, malaria workers were able to carry out their duties, delivering long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets, controlling mosquito populations with indoor spraying, and providing preventive treatment for pregnant women and children. In Nigeria, which still suffers from 60 million cases of malaria each year, health workers managed to even increase their delivery of malaria control, protecting millions of children in one of their largest campaigns to date.
At the same time, malaria resources have served double duty, tackling the mosquito-borne disease and helping to control the spread of COVID-19.
In Zambia, the scientists and equipment in the National Malaria Elimination Program’s genomic surveillance laboratory used to monitor malaria drug resistance quickly pivoted to find COVID-19 variants in the country. In Mozambique, an app created for health workers to provide real-time reporting of malaria cases and fevers has supplied critical data to the national COVID response.
Despite this progress, our work is not over. Malaria still kills more than 400,000 people each year. And pandemic lockdowns and movement restrictions have hampered some critical malaria activities, including access to diagnosis and treatment efforts in Africa.
Still, I’m optimistic that a world without malaria is within reach. And the COVID-19 pandemic reminds us why eradicating malaria is essential. Many of the building blocks we need to fight malaria and prevent the next pandemic are the same: accurate, real-time data; reliable supply chains to bring medicines and resources where they are needed most; and cross-country collaboration.
Investments in malaria programs help build stronger health systems that will not only save lives and bring an end to malaria, but also protect us from the next pandemic. And that creates a healthier, safer world for all.