Experts warn that the health of pregnant women exposed to both malaria and coronavirus could be 'tipped over the edge'
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By Kim Harrisberg
JOHANNESBURG, April 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Pregnant women in malaria-prone areas are more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19, especially where pesticide spraying to kill mosquitoes has been suspended due to lockdowns, health experts warned ahead of World Malaria Day.
During pregnancy, women's immune systems are lowered so as not to reject the fetus, putting them at risk of contracting both malaria and COVID-19, they said.
They also are vulnerable to misdiagnoses as the two diseases carry similar symptoms.
"It is a perfect storm," said Richard Allen, head of The Mentor Initiative, a humanitarian organisation fighting tropical diseases.
"The countries with the highest malaria burden, mainly in Africa, are also affected by conflict, population displacement, malnutrition and stress. You add COVID-19 and people - especially pregnant women and children - are extremely at risk."
Around the globe, there have been more than 2.7 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and nearly 190,000 have died, according to a Reuters tally on Friday.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has urged countries not to lose focus on other health issues during the pandemic, warning that disruptions to malaria prevention and treatment could double the year's deaths in sub-Saharan Africa to more than 700,000 from 2018.
Exact figures on how many pregnant women are at risk is hard to know, said Allen.
But he estimated that at any given time, 5% of women in countries needing humanitarian aid, or about 168 million people, are pregnant at any given time.
That would mean about 8.4 million women were at risk.
In southern Ghana, pesticide spraying to battle malaria-carrying mosquitoes was put on hold when a COVID-19 case was confirmed at a gold mine, putting thousands of people at risks, according to the charity Malaria No More.
"We have seen this happen in Angola too and fear it will become more common," Allen told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The symptoms of malaria and COVID-19, including fever, body aches and coughing, are similar, potentially causing the wrong diagnosis, experts added.
"On top of this, it is typically mothers who take children to health care facilities if they are sick, so they will be more exposed to viruses, especially if pregnant," said Samuel Asiedu, director of Anglo-Gold Ashanti's Malaria Control Programme in Ghana.
The combination of risks means vulnerable groups, particularly pregnant women and children still developing their immune systems, need to be protected, Allen said.
"This combination could tip people over the edge," Allen said.
Saturday marks the annual World Malaria Day, designated by the WHO.
(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @KimHarrisberg; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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