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Malaria in COVID-19 times: Let’s ensure access to core malaria prevention measures amidst this pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a catastrophic impact on the most vulnerable communities worldwide and threatens progress in the fight against Malaria, HIV and Tuberculosis. 

In the lead-up to this year’s World Malaria Day, countries across the globe are in the throes of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. While cases of the novel coronavirus in malaria-affected countries currently represent only a small proportion of the global total, the situation is evolving rapidly.

For this year’s World Malaria Day, themed under Partnership to End Malaria in promoting “Zero malaria starts with me”, this grassroots campaign aims to keep malaria high on the political agenda, mobilize additional resources, and empower communities to take ownership of malaria prevention and care. As COVID-19 spreads rapidly around the world, WHO urges countries to ensure the continuity of malaria prevention, treatment and control services. The COVID-19 pandemic is testing the resilience and robustness of health systems around the world. Recognizing the heavy toll that malaria exacts on vulnerable populations in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the region’s fragile health infrastructure, WHO underlines the critical importance of sustaining efforts to detect, prevent and treat malaria.

During this COVID-19 pandemic, the malaria community must remain committed to supporting the prevention of malaria infection, illness and death through preventive and case management services, while maintaining a safe environment for patients, clients and staff. Deaths due to malaria and its comorbidities such as anaemia must continue to be prevented.

Sustaining the provision of core malaria prevention and control measures is an important strategy for reducing the strain on health systems; these include vector control measures, such as insecticide-treated mosquito nets and indoor residual spraying, as well as chemoprevention for pregnant women and young children (intermittent preventive treatment in pregnancy, intermittent preventive treatment in infants and seasonal malaria chemoprevention). Additional special measures could ease the burden on health systems in the context of COVID-19, such as presumptive malaria treatment and mass drug administration.

In recent days, there have been reports of disruptions in the supply chains of essential malaria commodities such as long-lasting insecticide treated mosquito nets, rapid diagnostic test kits and antimalarial medicines  resulting from lockdowns and from a suspension of the importation and exportation of goods in response to COVID-19.

Coordinated action is required to ensure the availability of key malaria control tools, particularly in countries with a high burden of the disease, and that efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 do not compromise access to malaria prevention, diagnosis and treatment services.

The Uganda Malaria Reduction Strategic Plan (UMRSP) 2014-2020  calls for a rapid and synchronized nationwide scale-up of cost-effective interventions to achieve universal coverage of malaria prevention and treatment.

Uganda remains one of 11 countries that account for 70 per cent of all malaria cases globally. The increase in the number of severe forms of malaria requiring admission by 60 per cent in 2019 is evidence of this. Currently 144,000 children die before their fifth birthday in Uganda each year; 40% of these deaths are caused by pneumonia, malaria and diarrhea.

The Global Fund has been investing in the three disease control programmes (HIV TB and Malaria) since 2002. Based on the Global Fund Board’s decision in November 2019 on the funding available for the 2020-2022 allocation period; the Uganda Country Coordinating Mechanism (CCM) for the Global Fund secured an allocation of US Dollars $260,024,950 towards the fight against malaria in the implementation period 2021 to 2023.

One key strategy that we can deploy against the malaria fight during this COVID- Pandemic is strengthening the Integrated Community Case Management of Malaria (iCCM). Under this strategy Village Health Teams (VHTs) serve an average of 100 households of approximately 500 people, Each VHT has five community health workers selected by community members, Health facilities to track clients referred and supervise the VHT and the private drug shops within their catchment area, VHTs receive and iCCM 6-day training on the management and referral of children under 5. Once this strategy is strengthened we can end malaria in our communities for good.

Insecticide treated mosquito nets procured with Global Fund grants for Uganda have also been distributed to protect the women and men who are working and sleeping in the markets, to sustain the supply of food items as well as to street children; to protect them from mosquitoes and malaria infection during this COVID-19 lockdown period.

As we all follow the government’s directives to protect ourselves and families from the Corona Virus, we urge everyone to use and sleep under an insecticide treated mosquito net. This will protect us all from malaria, to ensure that we are healthy and alive during and after the end of the Corona Virus lockdown in Uganda.

Prof. Maggie Kigozi, the writer is the Board Chairperson – The Country Coordinating Mechanism (CCM) for the Global Fund in Uganda.