Worst predictions over mosquito-borne disease were avoided but thousands more children still died
By Anne Gulland, GLOBAL HEALTH SECURITY DEPUTY EDITOR6 December 2021 • 2:42pm
Covid shutdowns led to a spike in malaria cases and deaths in 2020, but the worst predictions of hundreds of thousands more fatalities have been avoided, the World Health Organization has said.
According to the latest figures in the World Malaria Report, there were an estimated 241 million malaria cases and 627,000 deaths from the mosquito-borne disease in 2020 – the majority of which were in children under the age of five in sub Saharan Africa.
This equates to an additional 14 million cases and 69,000 deaths compared to 2019, the figures show.
However, the WHO said the surge could have been far more extreme had the worst fears from the early days of the pandemic been realised. In April 2020 the United Nations agency projected that Covid-related shutdowns and disruptions to prevention programmes, such as insecticide spraying and the delivery of bed nets, could lead to a doubling in the number of deaths over the year.
The WHO now estimates that about three quarters – 159 million – of the planned number of insecticide-treated bed nets were distributed in 2020. On top of this 13 countries in Africa’s troubled Sahel region delivered preventive antimalarial medicines to 11.8 million more children in 2020 compared to 2019.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO, praised the work of health agencies in countries which shoulder the greatest malaria burden.
“Now, we need to harness that same energy and commitment to reverse the setbacks caused by the pandemic and step up the pace of progress against this disease,” he said.
The report showed sub Saharan Africa is home to 95 per cent of the global malaria cases, with six countries shouldering more than half the burden: Nigeria has 27 per cent of the cases, followed by Democratic Republic of Congo (12 per cent), Uganda (five per cent), Mozambique (four per cent), Angola (3.4 per cent) and Burkina Faso (3.4 per cent).
Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, said African countries “rallied to the challenge” and avoided the worst predictions of Covid. But “the pandemic’s knock-on effect still translates to thousands of lives lost to malaria”, she said.
Despite the setbacks there has been some positive malaria news in the last 12 months. China, which in the 1940s saw 30 million cases of the disease a year, was finally declared malaria free.
Huge progress has been made in tackling malaria since 2000, with the number of deaths halving over the last two decades. However, in recent years progress has stalled and experts are worried that factors such as climate change and resistance to insecticide and treatment may lead to a resurgence in the disease.
Gareth Jenkins, director of advocacy at Malaria No More UK, said the increase in numbers in 2020 must serve as a wake up call.
“Not only has disruption caused by the pandemic contributed to an extra 69,000 malaria deaths compared to 2019, but the new figures also show that thousands more children than previously thought are dying of this preventable and treatable disease,” he said.
Professor Sian Clarke, co-director of the Malaria Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, added: “As we enter the third year of the pandemic, we need to redouble our efforts to ensure cases don’t rise any further and we are adaptable to the new challenges faced.”