Amid corona crisis, India unprepared for malaria outbreak

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Kolkata: A view of waterlogged streets of Behala after heavy rains in Kolkata on Aug 18, 2019. (Photo: IANS)

New Delhi: The world may be obsessed with coronavirus but Malati Banerjee, a corporate executive, is waging a different war at her 2- storey apartment in Kolkata’s Behala — against malaria.

“Last year I caught malaria around April. I thought it would go in a few days. But the situation worsened and my platelet count dropped randomly. For most of May, I was in ICU battling for life. This year, I have a newborn in the house. I am more cautious about malaria than corona,” says Malati.

Apart from some exceptions like Malati, who are driven by personal experiences, malaria remains by and large a poor man’s desease in India. Unlike COVID-19, which is believed to have been brought to India through foreign travels, malaria in India grows in slum clusters.

As India, like rest of the world, is focussed on containing the spread of the virus that has so far killed 68 in India, both the World Health Organisation and Lancet, a well-known medical journal, have sounded alarm bells to not ignore malaria preparation.

Why COVID-19 can mean worse Malaria handling?

Lancet late last month warned against ignoring preparations against malaria, particularly in those nations where it is rampant. It warned, “Governments and health leaders in malaria-endemic regions must ensure that such stresses to medical infrastructure are minimised in the event of an outbreak of COVID-19. Resource allocation should be optimised whenever possible to ensure minimal disruption to malaria control should COVID-19 management become necessary.”

The publication has made a comparison with 2014-16 when preoccupation with containing Ebola saw a spike in malaria fatalities. “There is, therefore, a real and pressing danger for malaria-endemic regions when faced with the threat of a novel infectious disease outbreak,” it said.

The situation for a higher malaria mortality is so possible in malaria-prone countries that the World Health Organisation issued an advisory on March 26, soon after India announced a 21-day countrywide shutdown. The warning read, “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.” Dr Pedro Alonso, the Director of the WHO Global Malaria Programme, had issued the stark advisory.

Why is the worry real for India?

Preparation for the malaria season starts with the onset of April. It means better fogging, training of new municipal staff, stocking of incesticides, arrangement of large and small fumigation devices. And all of these cost money. North Delhi Mayor Avtar Singh said there has been no preparation work to contain malaria, as far as his zone is concerned.

“To be honest, no work has started at all. But now that you have raised the issue of the report, I will talk about it,” said he.

Dr D.R. Rai, former secretary general of Indian Medical Association, added, “Right now the government’s focus and resources are focussed towards containing the spread of coronavirus”. He called COVID-19 a rarity unlike malaria.

The peak of Malaria reaches in May. To contain its spread, the preparation should start from April, say experts.

India is among the 11 most malaria-affected countries in the world. According to National Vector Borne Disease Control Programme, about 95% population in the country lves in malaria-endemic areas. In 2019, India had 3,34,693 malaria cases. As many as 50 died of malaria last year while the death count was 96 in 2018. Interestingly, out of the 50 deaths, the maximum came from tribal Chhattisgarh, last year.A

Malaria — the ignored poor man’s disease?

Out of 3,34,693 malaria cases in 2019, 713 were from the national capital itself which gets the best of attention. The worst affected was Uttar Pradesh which had 92,732 cases last year. In perspective, India as on Saturday afternoon had 2650 active COVIND-19 cases.

The National Vector Borne Disease Control Programme clearly states: “80% of malaria reported in the country is confined to areas consisting of 20% of population residing in tribal, hilly, difficult and inaccessible areas,” it says.

CPI-M Polit Bureau Member Md Selim finds a ‘class argument’ in the way India has approached COVID-19 and seemingly unwary of malaria this year, so far. “COVID-19 initially affected the urban, affluent, foreign going populace. On the other hand, malaria affects the poor, homeless and tribals more. Hence, not only the media amplifies the former but the government too deploys its resources on it,” he claimed.

However, Selim added, coronavirus is a deadly phenomenon and the government is right in dealing with it strictly. But he objects to the way malaria eradication has not been as significant as it should be.

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