A Catholic humanitarian agency warned that the coronavirus pandemic may lead to greater cases of malaria-related deaths.
Sean Callahan, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), stressed this week the importance of tackling both COVID-19 and malaria - an infectious disease transmitted by certain mosquitoes.
“Like malaria, this disease respects no boundaries or borders. The coronavirus has tremendous destructive potential. But we cannot drop our guard on malaria in our fight against the virus. In fact, the danger of coronavirus will be greatly exacerbated if we let it threaten our progress in tackling malaria,” Callahan wrote in an op-ed published April 28.
Between 2000 and 2015, every malaria-affected region succeeded in reducing the number of illnesses and deaths related to malaria, Callahan said. In 2019, malaria prevention and treatment projects of CRS reached 86 million people in 12 countries, he said, noting that there has been a particular focus on children and pregnant women.
Callahan said the timing of the coronavirus spread in areas of West and Central Africa coincides with the high transmission season for malaria, when, between July and October, seasonal rains increase the number of mosquitos.
The Global Malaria Program of the World Health Organization has encouraged that the coronavirus pandemic and malaria be fought together. Even with malaria prevention initiatives in place, malaria will kill hundreds of thousands of people this year, according to WHO officials, and, if malaria is neglected while coronavirus is addressed, the impact will be felt for decades.
In his op-ed, Callahan said that without maintaining aid to malaria-endemic areas, both illnesses may build upon one another overcrowding hospitals and other health facilities.
“If we scale back our planned malaria activities in order to address the coronavirus, this will undoubtedly lead to an increase in malaria cases. This, in turn, will lead to overcrowded health facilities that are already struggling to keep up with the rising surge of the pandemic,” he wrote.
“Fighting two health behemoths at once will require innovation and dexterity. Organizations like Catholic Relief Services have extensive expertise in prevention, testing, treatment, and community engagement,” Callahan wrote.
As the pandemic will likely affect supply deliveries, he said, the organization plans to stock supplies closer to communities in case deliveries are interrupted and unable to reach central stores.
He added that the organization previously used mobile technology to digitize a malaria indicator survey, which was then used to help distribute 50 million nets in Sierra Leone and the Gambia. The data will then be used to “avoid door-to-door household registration” saving money and limiting person-to-person exposure, he said.
Callahan stressed the importance of local partners in the fight against malaria.
“With their support, we are better able to do such things as ensure every child who has a fever is tested and treated for malaria and then referred for follow-up care. During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and now with COVID-19, these tested practices are proving especially valuable,” he said.
“Fighting these deadly diseases simultaneously requires attention, creativity, and resources. With our collective commitment - donors, implementers, and policymakers - we can do both at the same time so progress on the malaria front is not lost as we also fight coronavirus. We can, and we must, battle our new enemy without losing ground against an old one,” Callahan wrote.