Africa: WHO Director-General's Opening Remarks At the Webinar - Responding to the Double Challenge of Malaria and Covid-19

Thank you, Dr Diallo, my brother, and thank you so much for your leadership at this critical time in global health.

As you know, I started my public health career in malaria, so this topic is very close to my heart.

You're all aware of the devastating impact COVID-19 has had, not only in terms of cases and deaths from the virus itself, but in terms of the ripple effect, with disruptions to health systems and services.

In the early stages of the pandemic, we were deeply concerned - as were all of you - about the potential impact on essential services for many diseases, including malaria.

In April of this year, we predicted that malaria deaths in sub-Saharan Africa could double this year alone if access to nets and antimalarial treatment was severely curtailed.

We issued new guidance that describes how countries can safely maintain core malaria services.

It makes clear that countries need not choose between protecting their populations from COVID-19 or malaria; they can - and should - do both.

I'm glad to say that so far, our worst fears have not been realized.

Many countries have gone to great lengths to maintain essential health services for malaria.

Benin, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone and Chad moved forward with their net campaigns, and many other countries have followed their lead.

Just yesterday, we heard that South Sudan has managed to safely distribute insecticide-treated nets despite the many challenges they face, including both COVID 19 and severe flooding.

We heard that seasonal malaria prevention campaigns in northern Cameroon have been safely implemented.

And we heard that Mozambique and Nigeria have adapted the delivery of health services by using community providers to care for people with malaria and other common childhood illnesses.

I would like to recognize and applaud all these efforts, and to thank all of you who have worked so hard to preserve and maintain those services to the greatest degree possible.

However, despite these actions, it breaks my heart to report that we still expect to see an increase in cases and deaths from malaria.

In a recent WHO survey of 105 countries, 46% of countries reported disruptions in malaria diagnosis and treatment.

These disruptions threaten to set us back even further in realizing our shared vision for a malaria-free world.

Before COVID-19 struck, malaria claimed the lives of more than 400 thousand people each year. More than 200 million people were newly infected annually.

The pandemic has frightened many away from using health facilities.

Every day, we hear of disruptions in access to life-saving health services, and in the delivery of key malaria commodities.

We hear of disruptions at antenatal care clinics, where pregnant women normally access preventive malaria therapy;

And at primary health care facilities, where young children and other vulnerable populations access life-saving malaria diagnosis and treatment.

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The full impact of the pandemic on malaria may not be known for some time.

In the meantime, we must all redouble our efforts to ensure that everyone in need of malaria prevention, diagnosis and treatment can access these services without delay.

Prevention is especially important.

Not only does it reduce the strain on health systems, it also reduces the risk of malaria being confused with COVID-19, because patients with both diseases often present with fever.

Yesterday, we heard from country-based experts about some of the challenges and opportunities they are facing in their efforts to deliver malaria services during the pandemic.

They spoke of the need to keep health workers safe and motivated during the pandemic.

They spoke of the need for all countries to have an adequate supply of medicines, diagnostics, prevention tools and protective equipment, and for the safe and rapid delivery of these commodities to the point of care.

And they spoke of the need for stronger data and surveillance systems as the backbone for informed and flexible decision-making.

We must listen to their voices, learn from their experiences and heed their call.

Addressing all of these challenges will require stronger health systems, built on the foundation of people-centred primary health care.

One of the paradoxes of COVID-19 is that although it has severely disrupted health systems and set us back in our pursuit of the health-related Sustainable Development Goals, it has also demonstrated the importance of strong health systems for social, economic and political stability.

The pandemic is a vivid reminder that health is not a reward for development, it's a prerequisite for development.

For those of you fighting malaria, this is not news. You are well aware of the intimate links between disease and poverty.

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My brothers and sisters,

Malaria has been with us for millennia. COVID-19 has only been with us for 8 months.

But many of the elements of our response to both diseases are the same.

We must harness the power of science and technology,

We must focus on prevention;

We must protect the most vulnerable;

We must come together in solidarity;

And we must never accept the status quo.

Thank you all for your commitment, and for all your efforts to keep people safe both from COVID-19 and malaria.

Together, we will overcome this pandemic.

Together, we will realize our vision of a malaria-free world.

And together we will build the healthier, safer, fairer world we all want to see.

Thank you so much, and I wish you a very productive discussion.

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