The world could see a sharp increase in people dying from diseases like tuberculosis, malaria and HIV due to the disruption to health services caused by the coronavirus pandemic, according to scientists. Infectious diseases kill millions of people every year, with sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia among the worst-affected regions.
Epidemiologist Dr. Salim S. Abdool Karim, of the Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA), chairs a government advisory committee on COVID-19.
“A big challenge has emerged as a result of the lockdowns and because people are scared to go to health care services,” Karim tells VOA. “We have seen a decline in the number of tests for tuberculosis. We've seen a decline in the number of patients coming in to get their medications. So that's of deep concern because it could undo the years of work that it has taken us to get to this point.”
Tuberculosis cases and deaths have fallen year-on-year in South Africa and many other countries, with record lows recorded in 2018. But the bacterial disease remains one of the world’s biggest killers with an estimated 1.5 million deaths last year. Dr. Finn McQuaid, a TB expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says there is growing evidence of the grave impact the coronavirus pandemic is having on the fight against TB.
“We know there's a 50 percent decrease in TB testing in South Africa at the moment,” McQuaid tells VOA. “So, people are not able to go to the clinic or go to hospitals and so on, and they're not being diagnosed with TB. And this means that they can then transmit TB further to other people. So, it's just going to sort of snowball.”
Modelling from the Stop TB organization estimates that a three-month lockdown in some of the world’s worst-hit areas could result in an additional 6.3 million TB cases and 1.4 million deaths.
The coronavirus lockdown measures may help to slow the transmission of TB but there will be little overall impact, says McQuaid.
“It's not actually going to make up for the other problems the TB is facing for diagnosis and treatment,” he adds.
There are also concerns that disruption to supply chains is causing a shortage of vital medicine, including some anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs used to treat HIV. The United Nations estimates the cost of the medicine could increase by $225 million per year.
Meanwhile researchers from Imperial College London warn malaria deaths in Africa could double in 2020, unless disrupted services such as mosquito net distribution and malaria treatments are maintained.
“It is vitally important to get malaria prevention measures out now to reduce the pressure on health systems as COVID-19 cases increase,” says Dr. Thomas Churcher of London-based Imperial College School of Public Health.
Despite the dire forecasts, South African government adviser Karim says there is opportunity.
“The opportunity to look at integration. Integration between COVID, HIV, TB and other conditions. So that when we are investing for our coronavirus vigilance, we are benefiting not just the COVID epidemic, but the epidemics of HIV and TB as well,” he says.
The global community must look at the bigger picture, adds McQuaid.
“We need to not forget diseases like TB, HIV and malaria. TB was in the top 10 global causes of death last year,” says McQuaid. “We stand to lose gains that we've been making in recent years, hard-fought gains that we've made, and we could be pushed back five 10, 20 years even.”
Huge resources have been dedicated to the fight against the coronavirus. Doctors say it’s vital that governments and global institutions do not neglect other deadly diseases as the fight continues.