Since 2000, historic successes have been achieved in the global fight against malaria. In the last decades, 7.6 million malaria deaths have been prevented and over 20 countries have been declared malaria-free. Furthermore, a new group of 26 countries has the potential to eliminate malaria by 2025. This shows that a world without malaria could become reality in just one generation.
Meanwhile, progress in the fight against malaria has stagnated. To ensure access to basic, life-saving prevention, diagnosis and treatment to one of the oldest and deadliest infectious diseases, there is currently a funding gap of around US$2.6 billion annually. And the COVID-19 crisis threatens to exacerbate this trend.
The "side effects" of the Corona pandemic
Although many activities in the fight against malaria continued, the "side effects" of the Corona pandemic remain a major challenge:
The already fragile health systems of sub-Saharan Africa are facing a double burden of combatting COVID-19 and endemic diseases at the same time. This continues to threaten malaria response and complicates the prevention, early detection and effective treatment of malaria cases.
Moreover, the current pandemic is not only straining health services, it also strongly affects the social and economic determinants of health. For example, COVID-19 is having a devastating economic impact, which may exacerbate poverty and malnutrition, weaken health systems and contribute to social instability.
In this context, economic consequences of the Corona crisis will be lower contributions from states to the fight against malaria, which would further exacerbate the existing funding gap.
Active Swiss engagement
Despite these challenges, there does not seem to be a massive increase in malaria deaths so far. This is also due to the commitment of the members of the Swiss Malaria Group, which is comprised of civil society, research institutions including Swiss TPH as well as actors from the government and the private sector who have been at the forefront to mitigate the negative impacts of the Corona virus on malaria control. Among other things, measures were taken to maintain access to health facilities and to the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of malaria (see the Swiss Malaria Group’s Website for specific examples of activities).
World Malaria Day: Can we learn from the COVID 19 crisis?
The commitment of the members of the Swiss Malaria Group and other stakeholders provide hope even in the current global health crisis: it shows that the negative impact of the Corona virus on malaria control can be substantially mitigated with combined forces.
Furthermore, many lessons learned from the fight against COVID-19 can be applied to the fight against malaria: Examples include the collection of up-to-date epidemiological data, international cooperation in the development of diagnostics and vaccines, political prioritisation and the need to strengthen health systems.
This is particularly significant in light of the fact that the pandemic is still ongoing. Actions against COVID-19 must go hand in hand with actions against other diseases. Therefore, on this year's World Malaria Day, we are drawing attention to the need to give high priority to the fight against malaria and the associated political and financial commitment of the international community, even in the shadows of the pandemic.
Commitment to global health is more important than ever
Over the past year, COVID-19 has raised awareness to the threats that infectious diseases can pose. For many people, the scenario of themselves or someone close to them dying from a disease is an everyday reality. This shows that a coordinated, cross-border fight for global health is more important than ever.
Julia Richter is Executive Secretary of the Swiss Malaria Group and teaches Global Health, Health Policies and Law at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences.