Covid-19 has taught us crucial lessons in how we as a global community react to and manage pandemics. It is essential that we learn from these lessons and protect vulnerable communities from the next disease outbreak, whenever that might be.
Throughout Covid-19, preventative measures for other diseases such as malaria have continued. As a survivor of malaria himself, and a practising GP, Dr Benji Pretorius, of Erada Technology Alliance, has seen first-hand the need for early intervention measures to keep on track and shares his thoughts on how the world can learn from Covid-19.
In October, The Global Fund to Fight HIV, TB, and malaria, published its annual results report, which gave an important insight into the progress made in eradicating these three diseases. What is clear in this report is that even in the face of Covid-19, there are many achievements to take pride in.
For instance, in 2019, six million additional lives were saved as a result of malaria prevention methods such as mosquito nets, with 160 million now distributed across 38 countries with a high burden of malaria.
However, Covid-19 continues to threaten global targets to prevent diseases. 75% of malaria projects have been either moderately or severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and there is still the real prospect of malaria cases surging to levels last seen 20 years ago without these projects.
As well as highlighting the need to maintain current disease prevention measures, Covid-19 has also revealed the vital work of those on the frontline of these programmes. Many frontline workers are volunteers, selflessly giving their time and efforts to support the most vulnerable organisations.
But in order for them to carry out this life-saving work, frontline volunteers and healthcare professionals have encountered significant obstacles. Sourcing personal protective equipment (PPE) has been one of the most pressing, not helped by the disruption to supply chains. This means that frontline workers are faced with either going into a high-risk area unprotected or leaving communities already in danger without crucial medication or tests to combat the spread of various diseases.
When they do work in vulnerable communities, healthcare workers are often met with distrust and even hostility from people frightened at the prospect of contracting Covid-19. This fear also makes communities less likely to visit professional health facilities for other conditions, such as malaria and TB for instance.
For viruses to be controlled at a local level, volunteers and healthcare workers are the first line of defence. As such, we need to ensure that they have the necessary protection to safeguard themselves, the people they interact with, and their own loved ones. There is also a pressing need for rapid tests for infectious diseases to be made available for members of organisations carrying out frontline detection and treatment so that, in the worst case scenario that they do contract a disease, it can be stopped before spreading to other regions.
During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, healthcare professionals from across the world were drafted in to help stop the spread. According to an online survey published in 2015, 15% of UK healthcare workers were “considering” going to West Africa to lend their support, however their concerns about contracting Ebola themselves, along with reservations from loved ones, meant they delayed formally volunteering. A lack of information about the virus itself was also found to be a contributing factor in the slow uptake of volunteers.
Although this is just one example, it does illustrate that alleviating frontline healthcare worker fears must be a priority, as should the provision of adequate PPE. And leaning on people’s desire to ‘give back’ to the communities affected by pandemics ensures that there is every likelihood of maintaining a constant source of dedicated individuals.
Covid-19 has also raised awareness of the need for rapid diagnostic tests to be made as widely available as possible. We have already begun to understand how crucial these tests are for diseases such as malaria, which displays many of the same early symptoms as Covid-19, and containing the spread.
Malaria can be fatal if it is not treated at the earliest opportunity. Diagnostic tests which can be carried out ‘in the field’ and swiftly provide an accurate result are fast becoming a key part of the arsenal used in the fight to eradicate it.
Technological advancements have been key to that. It is now possible for the results of a non-invasive test to be collected and analysed via a smartphone, therefore ensuring time is not lost in analysing blood samples or carrying masses of laboratory equipment into a locality. But these devices need to be available on a larger scale, which cannot happen without the support of the entire global community.
As the Global Fund’s report outlines, the potential for international cooperation is vast. Due to global efforts, including financial backing, more communities are able to access some form of protection against diseases like malaria and TB. But these efforts need to continue even as we combat this new virus.
With the WHO warning that a second wave of Covid-19 is on the horizon, it is crucial that we now action learnings gained from the first Covid-19 outbreak and from combating other diseases throughout history. There have been costly lessons along the way, but as a global community, we must continue collaborating and learning together so that we are all ready for a future large-scale pandemic.