Opinion: How to simultaneously tackle malaria and COVID-19

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Walking through his village in the Republic of the Congo, public announcer Jean Bosco Bassamio promotes an upcoming national mosquito net distribution. Photo by: Sam Phelps / CRS.

Between 2000 and 2015, every malaria-endemic region in the world succeeded in decreasing malaria-related illnesses and deaths, thanks to the innovative scale-up of prevention and treatment therapies. As we mark this unprecedented success, our progress is being threatened by the rapid spread of COVID-19.  

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.

We can, and we must, battle our new enemy without losing ground against an old one.

The timing for coronavirus could not be worse. The latest data shows the pandemic is spreading in malaria-endemic parts of West and Central Africa just as our teams are planning for the high season — between July and October when seasonal rains fuel the rise of massive mosquito populations.  

Pedro Alonso, director of the Global Malaria Program for the World Health Organization, while sharing new guidance on tailoring malaria interventions for coronavirus, recently tweeted that we can "contain #COVID-19 and accelerate our fight against #malaria which we know will kill hundreds of thousands of people this year, particularly in #AFRICA. Failure to do so will send us back 20 years."

The effect of COVID-19 on malaria efforts

How is COVID-19 affecting malaria programs?

Aid organizations are currently exploring ways to maintain essential anti-malaria programs while keeping health workers safe from COVID-19.

Malaria is highly preventable and treatable yet some countries have recently had to pause their malaria activities due to the pandemic. But, with continued WHO guidance, they are now reconsidering how they will plan for critical malaria prevention interventions, like the distribution of insecticide-treated nets and seasonal malaria chemoprevention campaigns.

We know the coronavirus is already stretching health systems worldwide. However, 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. It is imperative that we do all we can to help these health centers manage coronavirus patients while continuing malaria activities.

CRS warehouse officer Idriss Madingou counts bundles of mosquito nets stored at a central warehouse as part of a large-scale distribution supported by The Global Fund. Photo by:: Sam Phelps / CRS

How to continue to tackle malaria during the pandemic

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. In 2019, our malaria projects reached 86 million people in 12 countries, with a special focus on children and pregnant women. As the high-transmission season approaches, we will collaborate with our partners and national malaria control programs to organize seasonal malaria chemoprevention campaigns that deliver anti-malaria medications to over 11 million children under age 5 in five countries.

Anticipating travel restrictions, we plan on prepositioning supplies closer to communities in case lockdowns or travel restrictions prevent deliveries from central stores.

In Sierra Leone and The Gambia, we used mobile technology to digitize our malaria indicator survey to more efficiently distribute 50 million nets. We are now using this data to avoid door-to-door household registration for coronavirus prevention. This saves time, money, and limits person-to-person exposure.

Our long-standing, trusted relationships with local communities and faith-based leaders is the foundation of how we work. These relationships extend to religious leaders of all faiths, local chiefs, grandmothers, and so many others. 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. We find this is especially true for tackling false rumors, which is a challenge during any crisis.

Recently in Niger, CRS and partners distributed 6 million mosquito nets in four days as part of a national initiative funded by The Global Fund. CRS is committed to the safety of staff, partners, and program participants while we adapt new distribution methods under the latest guidance from the Alliance for Malaria Prevention. This means adjusting group sizes according to national guidelines and maintaining safe physical distancing. In Benin, for example, we supported the ministry of health in adopting key innovations that limit the spread of the virus during the campaign, including distance/mobile-phone-based training, rather than the traditional fixed-point training.

COVID-19 is a frightening disease that requires an urgent response. So far, as of April 27, over 206,000 people have died globally. We already know malaria will kill close to a half a million people this year. 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.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Sean Callahan

    Sean Callahan is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. He is a 31-year agency veteran who has held a wide variety of leadership roles overseas and at agency headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland.