YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – As the world lockdowns in order to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, a leading Catholic aid agency is warning that efforts to stop malaria need to continue.

“While the world’s attention is focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, malaria continues to ravage poor and vulnerable populations, especially in Africa, where pregnant women and children are most affected,” said Elijah Desire Egwu who works with Catholic Relief Services, the international development and aid agency of the U.S. bishops.

“In the context of COVID-19, it is even more critical to reduce the burden of malaria on the health system to avoid unnecessary loss of life,” he told Crux.

Around the world, COVID-19 has already infected over 3.2 million people and killed over 228,000. In Africa, so far only 35,000 people have been confirmed to have the virus, with 1,540 deaths – although the true number is thought to be much higher.

However, in 2018, malaria killed 405,000 people, over 90 percent of them in Africa; and unlike COVID-19, which thankfully seems to spare children, 67 percent of all malaria deaths are in children under the age of 5.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned countries against taking the eye of the ball in the battle against malaria as they prepare to fight the new coronavirus.

“As COVID-19 continues its rapid spread, WHO would like to send a clear message to malaria-affected countries in Africa,” said Dr Pedro Alonso, Director of the WHO Global Malaria Program. “Do not scale back your planned malaria prevention, diagnostic and treatment activities. If someone living in a place with malaria develops a fever, he or she should seek diagnosis and care as soon as possible.”

Malaria is a mosquito-borne disease, and one of the most effective countermeasures is the use of treated bed nets to protect people as they sleep.

The WHO warned that “severe disruptions to insecticide-treated net campaigns and in access to antimalarial medicines could lead to a doubling in the number of malaria deaths in sub-Saharan Africa.”

According to its analysis, if all insecticide-treated net campaigns were suspended, and access to effective antimalarial medicines reduced by 75 percent, then sub-Saharan Africa could lose as many as 769,000 people to malaria in 2020 a doubling of the number of deaths from 2018.

“We haven’t seen mortality levels like that in 20 years. We must not turn back the clock,” said the WHO’s Africa director, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti.

“I urge all countries to not lose focus on their gains made in health as they adapt to tackle this new threat,” Moeti said. “We saw with the Ebola virus disease outbreak in West Africa that we lost more people to malaria, for instance, than we lost to the Ebola outbreak. Let us not repeat that with COVID-19.”

Egwu said that’s why “continuing with malaria prevention efforts are more important than ever, as are precautionary measures, such as hygiene and distancing protocols, that can protect both health workers and patients to limit further transmission of the virus.

Countries such as Sierra Leone, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Benin – where Egwu works – have been praised by the WHO for initiating insecticide-treated net campaigns during the pandemic.

Such campaigns are critical for Benin – malaria remains the leading cause of death among children under five and morbidity among adults in the West African country. It accounts for 40 percent of outpatient consultations and 25 percent of all hospital admissions. In addition, it places a huge financial burden on families, with the World Bank estimating that households spend at least a quarter of their annual incomes on the prevention and treatment of malaria.

Egwu told Crux that CRS, with support from The Global Fund, has been hard at work for many months supporting Benin’s National Malaria Control Program to digitize the distribution of over 8 million insecticide-treated bed nets “to dramatically reduce the burden of malaria on the population and on the health system.”

“In the context of COVID-19, the government of Benin confirmed the importance of the fight against malaria by maintaining the national distribution” of the bed nets, he said.

CRS Benin has been adapting their malaria campaigns to safeguard staff and the general public against coronavirus infections.

“Catholic Relief Services is training staff and partners’ staff about COVID-19, and how to protect themselves and others from contracting the disease while they continue their efforts to prevent diagnose and treat malaria among rural populations,” Egwu told Crux.

“Currently, nets are being distributed door-to door to avoid gatherings at distribution points and hygiene protocols and guidelines are implemented to prevent the spread of the virus during distributions,” he continued.

“We are also training and equipping community health workers to adopt protection measures that will allow them to continue safely treating children for malaria,” he added.

Sean Callahan, the President and CEO of CRS, said he believed that scaling back planned malaria activities to address the COVID-19 pandemic “will undoubtedly lead to an increase in malaria cases.”

“This, in turn, will lead to overcrowded health facilities that are already struggling to keep up with the rising surge of the pandemic. It is imperative that we do all we can to help these health centers manage coronavirus patients while continuing malaria activities,” he said.

Callahan also said this would be a step back, since the fight against malaria has been gaining steam in the 21st century.

“Between 2000 and 2015, every malaria-endemic region in the world succeeded in decreasing malaria-related illnesses and deaths, thanks to the innovative scale-up of prevention and treatment therapies,” he said.

Admitting the coronavirus has “tremendous destructive potential,” Callahan emphasized that “we cannot drop our guard on malaria in our fight against the virus.”

“In fact, the danger of coronavirus will be greatly exacerbated if we let it threaten our progress in tackling malaria…We can, and we must, battle our new enemy without losing ground against an old one,” he said.