Researchers have moved to cushion thousands of children in ongoing malaria drug trials from Covid-19 infections.
The pandemic hit when nearly 128,000 children in western Kenya were enrolled to take the world’s first malaria vaccine. “It is important we keep the trials going, but also crucial that everybody is safe,” said Kenya Medical Research Institute chief research officer Bernhards Ogutu.
The studies include piloting of a malaria vaccine, the first new malaria treatment for babies under five kilogrammes, a new fast-acting medicine for treatment of severe malaria, and new combinations to treat drug-resistant and uncomplicated malaria.
By the beginning of this month one million doses of the vaccine had been administered in Kenya, Ghana and Malawi with about 400,000 children having received the first of four doses.
“Despite the Covid-19 challenges, families have continued to take their children for the vaccine,” said Siaya health director Ken Oruenjo.
Covid 19 Time Series
Dr Oruenjo said the participants’ details are logged into an electronic register that allows researchers to remotely monitor every individual’s progress while keeping in touch with caregivers.
“We are working closely with local health authorities to anticipate and mitigate potential risks to the vaccine pilots, including those arising from the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Mary Hamel of the World Health Organisation.
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The WHO predicts that due to the coronavirus emergency, deaths from malaria in sub-Saharan Africa could almost double from about 400,000 in 2018 to 770,000 this year.
In August, Health Chief Administrative Secretary Dr Rashid Aman said the number of weekly hospital visits due to malaria had dropped from about 300,000 to 100,000 since the Covid-19 outbreak in March.
The threat of all-time high malaria deaths this year is heightened by an abnormal rise in water levels and flooding around lakes Victoria, Naivasha, Baringo, Turkana, Nakuru and Bogoria.
The 2020 Economic Survey shows that malaria cases increased by 18.6 per cent to 4.7 million last year, with the Lake Victoria region accounting for the largest number of cases at 74.4 per cent.
Experts also pushed for the restart of malaria studies during a special session of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene’s annual conference last week. “We risk losing investment in malaria research worth more than Sh63 billion and an incalculable number of lives unless the activities are restarted now,” said RBM Partnership to End Malaria CEO Abdourahmane Diallo.
Novartis head of malaria programme Caroline Boulton said, “Covid took us all by surprise at a time we were trying to initiate four different malaria clinical studies.”
Dr Boulton told the conference that some of the study sites had been turned into Covid-19 isolation and treatment centres, forcing them to innovate.
To reduce person-to-person interactions, and the risk of corona infections, she said they had to shift most activities to digital platforms.
“We can see real benefits throughout the projects including more engagement, reduced site visits, and ease in dealing with logistics challenges.