A new 2021 malaria report released by the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals that, between 2019 and 2020, the global malaria death rate increased for the first time since 2000 due to COVID-19 disruptions, and children in Africa were the hardest hit. Additionally, the report mentions that a child now dies from malaria every minute on the African continent, compared to every two minutes as previously reported, before the pandemic.
The report indicates that this increase in cases and deaths is due to disruptions in the provision of malaria prevention, diagnosis, and treatment during the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, global malaria deaths reduced steadily between 2000 and 2019, from 896,000 in 2000 to 562,000 in 2015 and 558,000 in 2019. In 2020, however, malaria deaths increased by 12% compared with 2019, to an estimated 627,000.
“The pandemic occurred as malaria progress around the world had plateaued. There were signs of stagnation in 2017 after the phenomenal gains made since 2000, including a 27% decline in global malaria cases and a 51% decline in malaria deaths,” says Sherwin Charles, Co-founder of Goodbye Malaria.
Consequently, the WHO report shows that malaria continues to be a significant health concern for the Africa Region, which accounts for 95% of all global malaria cases (228 million) and 96% of all malaria deaths (602,000) in 2020. Furthermore, 80% of all malaria deaths in the region are among children under five.
Although these findings are concerning, the situation could have been far worse. At the beginning of the pandemic, the WHO predicted that, if disruptions were severe, malaria deaths in sub-Saharan Africa would potentially double by 2020. However, governments and organisations took urgent action to scale their malaria programmes, averting this worst-case scenario.
For instance, in 2020, Goodbye Malaria ramped up its efforts to realise a malaria-free Africa by spraying 18 districts across Southern Mozambique, protecting over two million people from malaria, of which 264,864 were children under the age of five. Between the 2020 and 2021 spray seasons, Goodbye Malaria reached 98% in indoor residual spraying protection coverage, exceeding the WHO’s mandate of 85%.
“Our programme is regional, with our grant covering Mozambique, South Africa and Eswatini. Eswatini reported zero malaria deaths in 2020 and South Africa achieved a reduction in mortality rate of 40% or more,” says Charles.
Although Africa rose to the challenge and avoided the worst of COVID-19, the pandemic’s knock-on effect has still resulted in the deaths of thousands of people from the disease.
Therefore, African governments and private sector partners need to intensify their efforts to ensure the region does not lose even more ground to this preventable and treatable disease, including strengthening primary health care and increasing domestic and international investment.
Innovation in new tools is also a critical strategy for accelerating progress. For example, one crucial new prevention tool is RTS,S – the first vaccine ever recommended by the WHO against a human parasite.
“By strengthening health systems, investing in current malaria interventions, and accelerating the development and implementation of new measures, we can once again achieve a rapid decline in malaria deaths and infections, improve countries’ resilience against current and future pandemics, and save millions more lives. Doing so will enable us to realise the end of malaria within a generation,” concludes Charles.