New data from the World Health Organization reveal that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted malaria services, leading to a marked increase in cases and deaths.
According to WHO’s latest World malaria report, there were an estimated 241 million malaria cases and 627 000 malaria deaths worldwide in 2020. This represents about 14 million more cases in 2020 compared to 2019, and 69 000 more deaths. Approximately two-thirds of these additional deaths (47 000) were linked to disruptions in the provision of malaria prevention, diagnosis and treatment during the pandemic.
However, the situation could have been far worse. In the early days of pandemic, WHO had projected that – with severe service disruptions – malaria deaths in sub-Saharan Africa could potentially double in 2020. But many countries took urgent action to shore up their malaria programmes, averting this worst-case scenario.
Sub-Saharan Africa continues to carry the heaviest malaria burden, accounting for about 95% of all malaria cases and 96% of all deaths in 2020. About 80% of deaths in the region are among children under 5 years of age.
The pandemic struck at a point when global progress against malaria had already plateaued. By around 2017, there were signs that the phenomenal gains made since 2000—including a 27% reduction in global malaria case incidence and a nearly 51% reduction in the malaria mortality rate—were stalling.
“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, global gains against malaria had levelled off,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “Thanks to the hard work of public health agencies in malaria-affected countries, the worst projections of COVID’s impact have not come to pass. Now, we need to harness that same energy and commitment to reverse the setbacks caused by the pandemic and step up the pace of progress against this disease.”
Since 2015, the baseline date for WHO’s global malaria strategy, 24 countries have registered increases in malaria deaths. In the 11 countries that carry the highest burden of malaria worldwide, cases increased from 150 million in 2015 to 163 million cases in 2020, and malaria deaths increased from 390 000 to 444 600 over that same period.
To get back on track, WHO and its partners recognize the need to ensure better and more equitable access to all health services – including malaria prevention, diagnosis and treatment – by strengthening primary health care and stepping up both domestic and international investments.
Innovation in new tools is also a critical strategy for accelerating progress. One important new prevention tool is RTS,S/AS01 (RTS,S), the first vaccine ever to be recommended by WHO against a human parasite. In October 2021, WHO recommended RTS,S for children living in sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions with moderate to high P. falciparum malaria transmission.
Delivering malaria services against the odds
Despite the challenges imposed by COVID-19, about three-quarters (72%) of insecticide-treated mosquito nets had been distributed in malaria-endemic countries as planned by the end of 2020. Thirteen countries in Africa’s Sahel subregion reached 11.8 million more children with preventive antimalarial medicines during the high-transmission rainy season in 2020 compared to 2019.
Sub-Saharan Africa continues to carry the heaviest malaria burden, accounting for about 95% of all malaria cases and 96% of all deaths in 2020
Some countries, particularly with a low burden of malaria and relatively strong health systems, even registered gains against malaria during the pandemic. China and El Salvador were certified by WHO as malaria-free in 2021, and the Islamic Republic of Iran attained 3 consecutive years of zero indigenous cases in 2020.
The six countries of the Greater Mekong subregion continue to achieve impressive declines in their malaria caseload. By the end of 2020, there were approximately 82 000 cases of malaria in the subregion, down from a peak of 650 000 cases in 2012 and about 100 000 cases in 2019.
Despite these achievements, the WHO African Region saw a 12% increase in malaria deaths in 2020 over the previous year, highlighting the consequences of even moderate service disruptions in a population at risk of malaria.
“While African countries rallied to the challenge and averted the worst predictions of fallout from COVID-19, the pandemic’s knock-on effect still translates to thousands of lives lost to malaria,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “African governments and their partners need to intensify their efforts so that we do not lose even more ground to this preventable disease.”
According to the report, 15 countries with a high burden of malaria reported reductions in malaria testing of more than 20% in April-June 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. National Malaria Programmes distributed about 48 million fewer courses of treatment in 2020 compared to the previous year. And, of the world’s 11 highest burden countries, only India registered progress against malaria. The 10 other countries, all in Africa, reported increases in cases and deaths.
Meeting global targets
According to the report, progress towards the 2020 milestones of the WHO global malaria strategy was substantially off track. In 2020, the global malaria case incidence rate was 59 cases per 1000 people at risk against a target of 35 — putting it off track by 40%. The global mortality rate was 15.3 deaths per 100 000 people at risk against a target of 8.9 — putting it off track by 44%.
Reaching the 2030 goals of the WHO malaria strategy, including a 90% reduction in global malaria incidence and mortality rates by 2030, will require new approaches, new tools and the better implementation of existing ones.
WHO’s malaria strategy emphasizes the need to carefully tailor existing approaches to prevention, diagnosis and treatment to local contexts, and to strengthen health systems overall, with a view to achieving universal health coverage.