GENEVA - The World Health Organization reports a significant rise in malaria cases and deaths in 2020 due to COVID-19 disruptions in malaria services.
Over the past two decades, global malaria death rates have been cut in half, saving the lives of 10.6 million people. New data gathered by the WHO show COVID-19 has stopped and even reversed the progress made in reducing deaths from this preventable, treatable disease.
The WHO's World Malaria Report estimates 241 million malaria cases and 627,000 malaria deaths globally have occurred in 2020.This represents an increase of 14 million cases and 69,000 deaths compared to the previous year. WHO links the increase to disruptions of malaria prevention, diagnosis, and treatment services during the pandemic.
Director of WHO's Global Malaria Program, Pedro Alonso, said the situation could have been far worse. The good news, he said is that the predicted doomsday scenario did not transpire. He notes gloomy projections made in March 2020 of a huge spike in malaria have not materialized.
"One worst case scenario implied a doubling of malaria deaths. So, let me reiterate this, that is not the case. We can call this a success story, even though an extra 47,000 people have died as a consequence of the disruptions," said Alonso.
The report finds progress in the global fight against malaria remains uneven.
Between 2000 and 2020, WHO has certified 12 countries as being malaria-free. Two countries, China and El Salvador, have achieved this status in 2021, despite the ongoing pandemic.
Since 2015, both cases and deaths have stalled in most of the world's 93 endemic countries and territories. However, other figures show malaria cases have increased in 32 countries, most in Sub-Saharan Africa and some in South America.
FILE - Wrapped in a mosquito net to protect from malaria, a trader sleeps in a mosquito net at Busega market in Kampala, Uganda, April 03, 2020.
Alonso said the situation remains especially precarious in Africa, where the malaria burden remains unacceptably high. He notes Africa accounts for about 96 percent of global deaths, 80 percent among children under age five.
"At the same time, the pandemic is not over, and the pace of economic recovery is uncertain. Without immediate and accelerated action key 2030 targets of the WHO Global technical strategy will be missed, and additional ground may be lost," he said.
WHO's strategy calls for a 90-percent reduction in malaria cases and deaths by 2030.It also presses for the elimination of malaria in at least 35 countries and for the prevention of disease resurgence in all countries that are malaria-free.