Bill Gates is warning about what will happen when malaria season arrives just as the coronavirus is peaking in some parts of the world. He’s been talking about vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus for months, and now he’s warning people not to lose sight of malaria amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
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In a blog post on his website, the billionaire philanthropist describes the mosquito, which spreads malaria, as "the world's deadliest animal." He pointed out that mosquitoes haven't taken a break during the coronavirus pandemic, so they are still spreading malaria. He added that malaria "kills a child every other minute of every day."
Most malaria deaths occur in the poorest countries with the weakest healthcare systems. He said these countries are now facing the dual burden of COVID-19 and malaria. Bill Gates also said that in many countries where malaria is common, the coronavirus is likely to peak at the worst possible time, which is the height of their malaria seasons.
He explained that during the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa in 2014, endemic diseases like malaria, HIV/ AIDS and tuberculosis causes many more deaths than Ebola because the countries' healthcare systems were disrupted by the Ebola outbreak. According to Bill Gates, experts are concerned that the coronavirus will cause a similar issue with malaria this year.
Problems for healthcare workers in Africa
The Microsoft co-founder said lockdowns and social distancing guidelines have made it hard for healthcare workers to provide preventative measures and treatments for malaria in many parts of Africa. He added that supplies of essential tools for dealing with the disease, like bed nets, anti-malarial drugs and rapid diagnostic tests, have been interrupted. Such tools have played a major role in slashing deaths more than in half since 2000.
Bill Gates believes the progress that has been made over the last 20 years in the fight against malaria could be in danger from the coronavirus. The World Health Organization found in one of its recent models that if there is a severe disruption of malaria prevention and treatment services, deaths from the disease in sub-Saharan Africa could reach levels not seen since 2000. In that year, about 764,000 people died from malaria in Africa, and most of those deaths were children.
"This is not a choice between saving lives from COVID-19 versus saving lives from malaria," Gates wrote. "The world must enable these countries to do both. Health officials urgently need to step up to the challenge of controlling the pandemic while also making sure that malaria, as well as other diseases like HIV and tuberculosis, are not neglected."
In the case of malaria, he said that means continuing campaigns to provide long-lasting bed nets treated with insecticide and taking steps to spray indoors to control mosquito populations. It also means providing preventative treatment for pregnant women and children in the hardest-hit communities.
Healthcare workers must take all these steps while also not putting their communities at risk from the coronavirus. Gates said many countries have been finding ways to continue key malaria programs even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For example, in the West Africa country of Benin, which has one of the highest malaria burdens in the world, the government has been working with Catholic Relief Services and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on a new way to distribute bed nets. The program uses smartphones, real-time data collection and satellite mapping to provide all families with a bed net.
Meanwhile, researchers continue to study new ways to prevent malaria and control mosquito populations. One such method is being studied at so-called "Mosquito City" in Tanzania.
Bill Gates also said that some malaria programs that already existed are now being used to also battle the coronavirus pandemic. He noted that emergency centers that track malaria outbreaks in Africa are now also being utilized to monitor the spread of the coronavirus.
"By tracking the shape and movement of the pandemic across countries and regions, health officials are also able to deepen their understanding of health conditions in communities that will, in turn, help improve their responses to malaria in those areas," he wrote.
He added that the progress made in the fight against malaria is "one of the greatest global health success stories." He believes the coronavirus pandemic reinforces why eliminating malaria and other preventable, treatable diseases is so important.