World Malaria Day 2021

World Malaria Day is always a chance to reflect on progress made and remaining challenges as we strive for elimination of this deadly, yet treatable, disease. This year, one thing is crystal clear: we won’t get malaria elimination back on track while countries are also battling COVID-19: data reported by the Global Fund this month indicate that 54% of countries are experiencing disruption to their malaria services as a result of the pandemic.

Writing about diagnosing malaria and other febrile illnesses during the COVID-19 pandemic back in April 2020, my co-authors and I were already highlighting important lessons to be learned from our short COVID-19 experience. One year on, integrated testing and management of patients, and the need for improved surveillance, remain as important now as they were then. Today, I would add a plea to integrate use of COVID-19 antigen rapid tests alongside malaria testing, to help identify COVID-19 cases early and to normalize COVID-19 testing alongside the well-respected malaria test. It is essential that people can confidently and safely seek care for febrile illnesses, and to trust healthcare workers can correctly identify the cause of fever.

On the topic of improving health-seeking behaviour, we warmly congratulate our friends at UNICEF for developing a chat-bot to support COVID-19 diagnosis, which is now also being launched to encourage patients with fever to seek care and get tested for malaria. It will be available in English, French and Portuguese through the UNICEF U-report system in 10 high-burden countries (Nigeria, DRC, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Niger, Cameroon, and Mali).

Innovation for malaria diagnostics is also still urgently needed. In November 2019 – just before our world was turned upside down by COVID-19 – we had launched a call to identify novel and promising malaria innovations for inclusion in prospective evaluation studies in malaria-endemic settings, to help accelerate development of the respective tests. We received 24 submissions for this innovation platform, and were able to generate evidence for 9 tests from about 1330 samples collected in three countries over the course of 2020. These studies provided tangible data for the developers, to help them advance the development of their product or advance access plans (depending on the stage of the technology). We were able to continue this important work despite the 2020 setbacks, and are planning to launch another round of calls for a new generation of innovations and innovators. So watch out for that call and please join us later in the year at the ASTMH conference, where the local teams from Sudan, Rwanda, and Indonesia will be sharing their experience and results.

This World Malaria Day, we join hands with our colleagues at Medicines for Malaria Venture to #UniteForMalaria and reaffirm our commitment to the fight against this disease.

Sabine Dittrich, Head of Malaria & Fever