Infectious Disease

Malaria cases remain relatively stable after sharp increase at start of COVID-19 pandemic

December 13, 2022

2 min read

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Moeti, Noore and Tedros report no relevant financial disclosures.

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After a sharp increase in global malaria cases and deaths as COVID-19 spread in 2020, WHO reported that both cases and deaths remained relatively stable in 2021.

Although there were 247 million cases of malaria globally in 2021, infections increased at a slower rate from the 245 million cases in 2020 — which was a leap from 232 million cases in 2019.

IDN1222TedrosMalaria_Graphic_01_WEB new

Data derived from WHO Global Malaria Report 2022.

The number of deaths from malaria declined to 619,000 — down from 625,000 in 2020 — but still much higher than the 568,000 deaths in 2019.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, there were concerns that malaria services could be disrupted so severely that 20 years of gains against the disease would be lost,” Abdisalan Noor, MD, head of the WHO Global Malaria Program’s strategic information response unit, said in an interview posted on WHO’s website ahead of the report’s release.

“Concerted actions from WHO and global partners and donors ensured that this worst-case scenario was prevented,” Noor said. “However, the COVID-19 pandemic still caused considerable service disruptions resulting in increases in the malaria burden in many countries.”

According to the report, which was based on information gathered from 84 malaria-endemic nations across WHO regions, 95% of cases and 96% of deaths globally were in the African region. A convergence of pandemic-linked disruptions — health system challenges and restricted funding among them — and malaria-specific concerns, including new vectors and a decline in the efficacy of core disease-cutting tools, has contributed to the worsening situation since COVID-19 spread globally, the report said.

Total funding to fight malaria increased to $3.5 billion in 2021, but that was less than half of WHO’s estimated $7.3 billion need to “defeat malaria.”

“Despite progress, the African region continues to be hardest hit by this deadly disease,” Matshidiso Moeti, MB, MSc, WHO’s regional director for Africa, said in a press release. “New tools — and the funding to deploy these — are urgently needed to help us defeat malaria.”

Some malaria fighting tools are also losing impact, WHO said. These include insecticide-treated nets, which have become less effective because of insecticide resistance, lack of access and change in the behavior of mosquitoes, which have begun biting people before bedtime, when the nets are used.

Additionally, WHO noted the emergence of the Anopheles stephensi mosquito, an invasive malaria vector native to Southern Asia that made its way through shipping routes in Djibouti and has spread west to Ethiopia, where it has been blamed for an unprecedented dry-season outbreak.

However, longer lasting beds with new combinations of insecticides, targeted baits that attract mosquitoes, spatial repellents and genetic engineering of mosquitoes all are expected to help battle malaria, WHO said.

Additionally, the agency said it expects vaccines to begin playing a significant role against malaria, with several in development and one, RTS,S, already in use.

Additionally, early trial results for a monoclonal antibody showed the single-dose preventive treatment prevented malaria infection in adults during malaria season in Mali.

“We face many challenges, but there are many reasons for hope,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, MSc, director-general of WHO, said in a press release.

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