Dr Scott Filler
Malaria Team Leader, The Global Fund
Pictured above: Spray operators hunt for mosquito larvae in an abandoned fish pond outside a village in the Indonesian island of Sumatra as part of a malaria control campaign. Mosquitoes breed in stagnant waterbodies, raising the risk of spreading the disease. Credit: The Global Fund / Jiro Ose
In the face of the current COVID-19 pandemic, a renewed effort to end malaria has never been so vital.
In the past few years, progress toward eradicating malaria has levelled off, according to the World Health Organization.
Even more worrying are reports that the disease is on the rise in some high-burden countries.
“A lot of this is driven by the fact that the populations affected by malaria are growing fast, while we’ve seen financing plateau,” explains Dr Scott Filler, Malaria Team Leader at the Global Fund.
Throw into the mix a global pandemic, and it’s easy to see why efforts need to be stepped up if we are to defeat a killer that takes the lives of more than 400,000 every single year – more than half of whom are children.
Learning from our mistakes
As the world grapples to deal with COVID-19, there are lessons to be learnt from previous disease outbreaks.
During the Ebola crisis of 2014-2016, health services in West Africa were disrupted, malaria campaigns put on hold, and many individuals too fearful to seek treatment.
As a result, a massive increase in malaria-related deaths was reported. “More people died from malaria than from Ebola,” says Filler.
Adapting interventions quickly
While the disease is complex, effective tools are available and they are working. Since 2000, the number of malaria-related deaths has halved. However, without further support, these huge gains could be lost.
The Global Fund is responding quickly by making up to US $1 billion available to help countries fight COVID-19, mitigate the impacts on lifesaving malaria programmes, and prevent fragile health systems from being overwhelmed.
“We need to adapt things like mass mosquito net distribution,” says Filler. “We’re also working on messaging to ensure patients with symptoms do seek care and that the healthcare providers and patients are protected.”
Malaria eradication can benefit the economy
Malaria is a disease that not only disproportionately affects people in poverty, but also perpetuates poverty.
Filler believes that, despite the gloomy fiscal outlook, now is the time for investors to be bold and consider the wider economic benefits of defeating this deadly disease.
Talk of vaccines, genetic engineering and new drugs being developed in the near future should add encouragement.
“In the next three to five years we’ll see things come to the table that will expand our toolbox,” continues Filler. “But that takes investment.”
The goal of eradicating malaria within a generation is still achievable. If the COVID-19 crisis has taught us anything, it’s that we live in an interconnected world and sharing resources, expertise and finances will bring results.