“You can’t make malaria wait”: Hidden risks in COVID-19 foreign aid

You can’t make malaria wait while you deal with COVID19. Image from Htin Kyaw Thu, Myanmar

The global efforts against malaria have stalled and the situation is now precarious warns Professor Brendan Crabb AC in the Australian Financial Review.

Read the entire article by AFR Health Editor, Jill Margo. An edited version is shared below.

Australia needs to be careful that its generous pledge of almost AUD$1.2 billion to help fight COVID-19 in neighbouring countries does not fix one problem while overlooking other health challenges, experts warn.

Just as the pandemic led to people shunning treatment for serious medical issues in Australia this year, there is also fear that endemic diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis (TB) and HIV in the south Pacific and south-east Asia could take hold more seriously.

“Malaria poses the most acute, short-term risk. It can double, triple or do worse in a single wet season if the wheels come off control measures,” Professor Brendan Crabb AC, Director and CEO of Burnet Institute said.

“You can’t make malaria wait while you deal with COVID. It has probably killed between 10 and 30 per cent of all people who have ever lived. It is the greatest pandemic ever and is the reason countries in tropical regions of the world are so poor.

“I’m full of praise for Australia’s contribution, in particular for the ministerial trio of Foreign Minister [Marise] Payne, International Development Minister [Alex] Hawke and Health Minister [Greg] Hunt, who secured this vast sum of money.

“But it’s vital we ensure we strengthen services that control the pandemics already in those countries, by integrating them with the new COVID strategy.

“We should aim to kill several birds with one stone.”

Professor Crabb, a world authority on malaria, says remarkable progress in combating the disease has recently stalled and the three decades of hard-fought gains can rapidly be undone.

“The situation is precarious,” he said, commenting on the World Malaria Report 2020, released by the World Health Organization.

Progress stalled

While COVID-19 has reinforced the critical importance of timely, accurate, localised data and innovation to fight malaria effectively, the report describes it as a “serious additional challenge to malaria responses”.

It says the world has stalled at 1100 child deaths a day from malaria. While this is a big improvement from double that number a decade ago, the fact that every death is preventable underlines this tragedy.

A recent report in The Lancet Infectious Diseases raised similar concerns saying it was urgent that policymakers not ignore measures to fight malaria when considering strategies to combat COVID-19.

As fever is a common symptom in both diseases, education is needed so people do not mistake one for the other, although the two can co-occur.

People needed to be tested for both and the report said it was important those with malaria were not scared to visit hospitals and community clinics in fear of misdiagnosis.

Professor Crabb, who also chairs Pacific Friends of Global Health, attributes the stalling in malaria control to growing resistance to anti-malarial drugs, insecticides and even the diagnostic test.

The government will reallocate $280 million in aid funding to deal with COVID-19 in the Asia-Pacific.

“Our tools are becoming less reliable and we might be reaching the limit of what’s useful. But we must keep up malaria service delivery while we introduce COVID vaccine readiness programs.

“To help our neighbours, Australia has given $300 million to the GAVI, the global vaccine alliance, and $80 million to Covax, a collection of agencies that also procures vaccines. Another $305 million was announced in the budget for the Pacific and Timor Leste, and just a few weeks ago, a further $500million was pledged.

“The last thing we want is for our well-meaning focus on COVID to distract us from global health challenges that predated COVID.”

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