The World Health Organization on Monday called for a stepped-up fight against malaria, a preventable and treatable disease that continues to claim hundreds of thousands of lives each year, noting that progress against the disease is beginning to flatten due to challenges COVID-19 poses.

According to the WHO‘s latest world malaria report released Monday, progress against the disease continues to plateau, particularly in high-burden countries in Africa.

Gaps in access to life-saving tools undermine global efforts to curb the disease, and the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to set back the fight even further.

“It is time for leaders across Africa – and the world – to rise once again to the challenge of malaria, just as they did when they laid the foundation for the progress made since the beginning of this century,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus.

“Through joint action, and a commitment to leaving no one behind, we can achieve our shared vision of a world free of malaria.”

Abuja Declaration

In 2000, African leaders signed the Abuja Declaration pledging to reduce malaria deaths on the continent by 50% over 10 years.

Robust political commitment, together with innovations in new tools and a steep increase in funding, triggered an unprecedented period of success in global malaria control, said the WHO.

The report says 5 billion malaria cases and 7.6 million deaths have been averted since 2000.

In 2019, the global tally of malaria cases was 229 million, an annual estimate that has remained virtually unchanged over the last four years.

The disease claimed some 409,000 lives in 2019 compared to 411,000 in 2018.

As in the past years, the African continent shouldered more than 90% of the overall disease burden.

Since 2000, the continent has reduced its malaria death toll by 44%, from an estimated 680,000 to 384,000 annually.

However, the progress has slowed in recent years, particularly in countries with a high disease burden.

Funding shortages

A funding shortfall at both the international and domestic levels threatens future gains.

In 2019, total funding reached $3 billion against a global target of $5.6 billion.

Funding shortages have led to critical gaps in access to proven malaria control tools.

This year, COVID-19 emerged as an added challenge to the provision of essential health services worldwide.

Ensuring access to malaria prevention — such as insecticide-treated nets and preventive medicines for children — has supported the COVID-19 response strategy by reducing malaria infections and, in turn, easing the strain on health systems, according to the WHO.

The global health body said it is, however, concerned that even moderate disruptions in access to treatment could lead to a considerable loss of life.

“COVID-19 threatens to further derail our efforts to overcome malaria, particularly treating people with the disease,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO regional director for Africa.

“Despite the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on African economies, international partners and countries need to do more to ensure that the resources are there to expand malaria programs which are making such a difference in people’s lives.”

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