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Podcast Ep. 8: Lost voice – COVID's impact on malaria

  • Burnet Institute
  • 14 Sep 2021
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Infectious diseases like malaria are being neglected at a time of COVID-19. Burnet Institute Deputy Director, Professor James Beeson says the world is at risk of seeing a setback in the progress made towards eliminating the mosquito-borne disease.

“We are already seeing in some places increasing malaria. That’s going to be harder to get back under control, especially in an environment where there may be less resources around, that are being diverted to COVID.”

“It’s going to be hard to claw back those gains and get back to where we were before the COVID pandemic.”

Malaria continues to kill over 400,000 people are year, and of those figures it’s children under the age of five years who are the most vulnerable group.

Why malaria continues to plague us

History shows that we can point to times when malaria rates were driven down, with concerted effort. For instance, the discovery of DDT for indoor spraying after WWII made a huge dent in malaria cases across Africa.

However, Professor Beeson says, “these gains are relatively brittle,” and, “they reverse quite quickly.”

“The current tools can get us progress, but the limitations are we’ve got increasing drug resistance. So, the drugs that we use become less effective over time. And we’re seeing that spread particularly in Southeast Asia.”

According to Professor Beeson, unlike COVID, “malaria is a very different beast,” especially when it comes to vaccines.

“We see in a malaria vaccine, efficacy – that level of protection of more like 50 per cent, even 30 per cent depending on the group.”

“Some people respond very poorly. Their immune system doesn’t fire up after having the vaccine very well at all. And in others, particularly in children, you see the immune system fires up, and then it disappears rapidly. So, they don’t sustain that immunity.”

“That’s a huge barrier to getting the sort of level of protection that we need to eliminate something like malaria.”

Malaria’s trail of destructionOur news cycle nowadays is flooded with coronavirus related images of sick people on ventilators, or those suffering from long COVID.

But the world can’t forget about the devastating impact of malaria, warns Professor Beeson.

“Every day there are literally tens of thousands of parents waking up with a sick child having to work out, where will I get my child tested? How will I get treatment? Will the treatment work, are they going to get really sick?”

“Areas where malaria is most prevalent are the areas where families have the lowest financial resources.”

“A single episode of malaria illness that requires them to go to a healthcare centre is time away from work, it’s time away from farming. It’s the cost of transport to get there. It’s the cost of going to the clinic and paying for drugs.”

“These are huge impacts, and it can be a breaking point.”

Listen and subscribe to How Science Matters, an 8-part podcast series by Burnet Institute to help us to make sense of the many impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic through science.

Hosted by former ABC broadcaster, Tracy Parish and Professor Brendan Crabb, a microbiologist, malaria researcher, and one of the best minds in infectious diseases and global health today. Produced by Written & Recorded.