The world has been enveloped in the shadow of COVID-19. As the virus continues to spread at a rate that was unimaginable to many of us before. It alters our lifestyles, claims our loved ones, and takes up the lion’s share of our attention. As a result, the fight against other infectious diseases is being put on the back burner. We’ve made massive progress in countering infections like HIV and Tuberculosis over the last few decades. Now, as the battle against those illnesses gets put on hold to deal with new threat, they might have the perfect opportunity to bounce back with a vengeance. Here’s how COVID-19 is putting all our previous progress with other infectious diseases at risk too.
The impact of COVID-19 on other infectious diseases
COVID-19 is claiming lives across the globe. It’s natural that we would be focused on eradicating this invisible enemy, however, it’s clear that while our attention is aimed at one foe, the others become stronger. A study recently published in the Lancet Global Health reported that as a result of disruptions to services for HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria in countries that are struggling with these illnesses loss of life may increase in the next five years.
“In high-burden settings,” the study reports, “deaths due to HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria over 5 years could increase by up to 10%, 20%, and 36%, respectively, compared with if there was no COVID-19 pandemic.”
HIV would be impacted by the disruption to antiretroviral therapies in low-income and middle-income countries. In the case of TB, the lack of timely diagnosis and treatment of new cases on account of COVID-19 interventions would play the biggest role in the increase in fatalities. The interruption of planned insecticide-treated net campaigns would significantly affect the burden of malaria.
The studies findings conclude with: “These disruptions could lead to a loss of life-years over 5 years that is of the same order of magnitude as the direct impact from COVID-19 in places with a high burden of malaria and large HIV and tuberculosis epidemics.”
In addition to these,In short: our battle against these threats is equally important as our fight against COVID-19.
This is not the first time we’ve seen disruptions in slowing the rate of infectious diseases. During the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, thousands of additional lives were lost on account of pausing anti-malaria efforts. This included 7,000 otherwise preventable malaria-associated deaths in children under five in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Harmon Courage writes that even in developed countries like the US, once-rare infectious diseases may see a devastating come-back. “As people stay at home and forgo routine medical care, including scheduled vaccinations for children, preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough will have more unprotected people to infect. And that puts not only more people at risk, but also more strain on the healthcare system”.
Let’s not forget that Dengue is tearing through latin America at unprecedented (and yet under-reported) rates. According to the New Humanitarian. in 2019, Dengue infections reached new records in the region, with over three million confirmed cases – that’s six times the previous year. Joshua Collins writes that “more than 1,300 people died from the disease. Most health experts regard the actual number as far higher, as many of the worst-affected rural communities lack medical services, and even in urban centres mild cases are unlikely to be reported by patients”.
If the results of this pandemic are scaring people in countries with fully developed healthcare systems (although, here the US may not be the best example), it doesn’t take a genius to imagine how hard it’s hitting developing nations. The Congo, for example, is currently battling not only COVID-19 and Ebola – which are a horrific combination as is – but also the world’s biggest measles outbreak. Let’s not forget that the African nation is also still grappling with a quarter-century-old civil war. According to CBS News: “while Ebola and COVID-19 have drawn far more international attention, measles has killed more Congolese than those diseases combined”.
Why are we struggling to fight other infection diseases?
Along with our attention, much of our finding is suddenly being diverted to COVID-19 research and testing.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has been at the forefront of battles with public health crises for 20 years, has decided to focus its “full attention” on COVID-19. This means that the support it previously provided for work on HIV and polio are being redirected.
In addition, the United States decision to withdraw its support for the World Health Organisation will result in the WHO losing its biggest financial contributor. According to an article published by The Hill, “The United States contributes upwards of $400 million annually to the WHO — and public health experts have warned that a suspension of funds would severely damage the organization”.
This decision demonstrates not only the ineffective strategies with which the current US government is choosing to fight the COVID-19 pandemic (or rather, choosing NOT to fight it at all), but also their carelessness and irresponsible choices regarding all the other invisible threats we as a species have to face. The US is hardly alone in its carelessness either. Even on an individual level there’s an alarming amount of indifference to the alarming health crises all over the world.
Why should we care about other diseases right now?
The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating all on its own. Partnered with other diseases, like Malaria, Ebola, or Measles, it makes for a horrific combination that will prove lethal to millions of children and adults around the world.
It’s extremely easy to ignore events that are happening on the other end of the world. As we saw with COVID-19, however, a disease that was limited to one country in December may spread across the globe in a matter of weeks. Countries who lack the resources to fight off these invisible threats should not be left to do so alone while those in the developing world cast it from their minds and shelter in their cushy homes. We’re all connected now – by air travel, and by the internet. We can no longer plead ignorance, or wave off these issues with “it’s not my business”. To do so would be reckless and irresponsible.
When it comes to outbreaks of infectious diseases, we really are all in the same boat. Though it may seem like a very big boat, eventually our decision to ignore problems on one end of it will catch up to all of ut. Harmon Courage quotes Claire Standley, a faculty member at Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security: “An outbreak anywhere is a threat everywhere”.
It would serve us well to remember this.