Malaria Deaths Increased By 69K Last Year, But It Could Have Been Worse, WHO Says

The COVID-19 pandemic aided in the rise of malaria deaths in 2020, according to the World Health Organization, with a devastating increase of 69,000 deaths compared to the previous year, the Associated Press reported.

According to WHO on Monday, the death count was predicted to be worse, assuming the effect of COVID-19 on health care services and immune systems would have doubled the amount of malaria-related deaths.

Surprisingly, the U.N. health agency reported 241 million malaria cases in 2020, and 627,000 deaths. From 2019, the case count only increased by 14 million and 69,000 deaths.

"Approximately two-thirds of these additional deaths were linked to disruptions in the provision of malaria prevention, diagnosis and treatment during the pandemic," WHO said.

Dr. Pedro Alonso, director of WHO's Global Malaria Program, was thankful for the good news.

"The first message, in many ways, is a good news message: Due or thanks to the strenuous efforts of malaria-endemic countries — partners and others — I think we can claim that the world has succeeded in averting the worst-case scenario of malaria deaths that we'd contemplated as a likely or possible scenario a year ago," Alonso said.

The "doomsday scenario has not materialized," Alonso added. He said more than 10 million malaria-related deaths have been avoided since 2000.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Malaria Deaths
The COVID-19 pandemic aided in the rise of malaria deaths in 2020 according to The World Health Organization, with a devastating increase of 69,000 deaths compared to the previous year. In this photo taken on Dec. 11, 2019, residents of the Malawi village of Tomali wait to have their young children become test subjects for the world's first vaccine against malaria. Jerome Delay/Associated Press

Sub-Saharan Africa accounted, roughly, for at least 95% of all malaria cases and deaths in 2020, the agency said.

Over the last 15 years, a dozen countries — including China and El Salvador this year — have joined the ranks of countries that WHO has classified as malaria-free.

But it cautioned that progress against malaria has leveled off in recent years, and two dozen countries have tallied increases in deaths related to malaria since 2015, the baseline year for WHO's malaria strategy.

In the 11 hardest-hit countries, annual cases of malaria grew by 13 million to 163 million between 2015 and 2020, and deaths rose more than 54,000 to nearly 445,000 annually as of last year, WHO said.

But in recent years, "we are not on a trajectory to success," he added, cautioning that it's hard to tell what the impact will be in 2021 and beyond.

"How things will evolve over the coming weeks and months I wouldn't dare to say at this point," Alonso said.