New data from the World Health Organization (WHO) reveal that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted malaria services, leading to a marked increase in cases and deaths according to their latest report released December 6.
WHO’s latest World malaria report said 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 programs, 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.
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.