London — The Ebola outbreak in Guinea may have led to 74,000 new cases of malaria going untreated, causing a spike in malaria deaths likely to be much higher than the Ebola toll, researchers said on Wednesday.
During the Ebola outbreak in 2014, visits to health centres in Guinea fell by 42 percent in the worst affected areas, as many people held back from seeking medical help from fear of contracting the disease, said a report published in the medical journal Lancet Infectious Diseases.
"One problem is that the early symptoms of malaria (fever, headache, and body aches) mimic those of Ebola virus disease," Mateusz Plucinski of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the lead author of the research, said in a statement.
"Malaria is one of the main causes of fever and health facilities visits in Guinea, but our data suggest that since the start of the Ebola epidemic people with fevers have avoided clinics for fear of contracting Ebola or being sent to an Ebola treatment centre."
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Ebola has killed 2,444 people in Guinea, of a total of 11,169 in the three worst hit West African countries.
But because of thousands of untreated malaria cases, the number of malaria deaths resulting from the Ebola outbreak in Guinea is likely to greatly exceed those caused by Ebola itself, said the researchers.
In the areas most affected by the Ebola outbreak, the number of people receiving malaria drugs dropped by almost 70 percent, said the study.
Untreated malaria cases were also likely to have contributed to a greater number of people with fever being admitted to overburdened Ebola treatment centres where they might have been exposed to the Ebola virus, it said.
"Malaria control efforts and care delivery must be kept on track during an Ebola epidemic so that progress made in malaria control is not jeopardised and Ebola outbreak response is not impeded," said Plucinski.
The researchers surveyed 120 public health facilities in Guinea in December 2014, both in areas affected by the virus and those that were Ebola-free.
Worldwide, malaria killed some 584,000 people in 2013, including some 453,000 children under five years old. Although funding to fight malaria has increased threefold since 2005, it is still only around half the $5.1 billion needed.