While West Africa has focused much of its attention and resources on the Ebola virus this year, malaria — a preventable, treatable disease that has proven to be deadlier — has claimed thousands of more lives in the region.
The reported 40 percent drop in malaria cases, while desirable, may be a miscalculation spurred by people’s reluctance to go to hospitals amid the panic about Ebola, a high-ranking global health official recently told reporters.
“It would be a major failure on the part of everybody involved to have a lot of people die from malaria in the midst of the Ebola epidemic,” Bernard Nahlen, deputy director of the U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative, an effort to reduce malaria and poverty in Africa, told the Associated Press. “I would be surprised if there were not an increase in unnecessary malaria deaths in the midst of all this, and a lot of those will be young children.”
While rates of contraction for malaria, a mosquito-borne infection, have fallen since 2000, United Nations officials say that Ebola’s resurgence threatens any progress made properly diagnosing and treating people and doling out protective nets. Since the outbreak started in March, many inpatient clinics throughout West Africa have shuttered amid fears about contracting Ebola and depleting numbers of medical professionals.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 80 percent of malaria infections and deaths take place on the African continent. Last year, nearly 15,000 Guineans died from malaria, more than 90 percent of whom were children, according to Nets for Africa, a charity based in New York that provides mosquito beds for people living in areas with a high prevalence of malaria. The Ebola death toll, while high, pales in comparison to that of malaria.
Similarities between malaria’s symptoms – which include dizziness, fever, and head and muscle aches – and those of Ebola have made the former much more deadly, especially since the latter has kept doctors and residents on edge. Figures gathered from WHO in October show that 24 percent of people who tested positive for Ebola in Gueckedou, the capital of Guinea, also tested positive for malaria. One in three people who didn’t have Ebola had malaria.
The issue has also affected medical professionals: one of 38 Cuban doctors sent to Guinea to combat the Ebola outbreak died not long after contracting malaria. While a kidney dialysis machine could have saved his life, the clinic where it was located had shuttered after several people died from Ebola.
“People in Ebola-affected countries are dying – not only from Ebola but also from other causes – because the majority of health facilities in these countries are either not functional or people are not using them for fear of contracting Ebola,” Dr Marie-Paule Kieny, Assistant Director-General of Health Systems and Innovation at WHO, told health and finance ministers of Ebola-stricken countries, representatives of international organizations, and development partners during a meeting earlier this month.
During the gathering in Geneva, participants discussed the means by which they could integrate health services including clinical care, surveillance, health promotion, and disease prevention, especially when it came to preventable ailments: “A health system has to be able to both absorb the shock of an emergency like Ebola, and continue to provide regular health services such as immunization and maternal and child care,” Kieny said.
Efforts to combat malaria have fallen short in Guinea and Liberia because of fears about the Ebola virus. In Guinea, doctors stopped conducting blood tests for malaria via finger pricking. Even though representatives of Doctors Without Borders have passed out antimalarial medication in recent months without issue, authorities have ceased the distribution of 2 million mosquito-blocking nets that would halt malaria’s spread.
Doctors in Sierra Leone, however, have taken unprecedented measures against malaria, distributing antimalarial drugs promised to protect 2.4 million people in a door-to-door campaign throughout districts where Ebola poses the greatest risk. Health workers have also educated families on the similarities of Ebola and malaria symptoms.
Fatoumata Nafo-Traore, executive director of Roll Back Malaria, an alliance of global groups, said that these efforts will help maintain a sense of normalcy while health workers combat what has become an unprecedented outbreak.
“It is a good example of how looking at the broader picture is the right approach – because the number one killer in Sierra Leone is malaria, not Ebola,” Nafo-Traore told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We can’t win the fight against either disease by looking at it in isolation.”