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Let us not allow Covid-19 crowd out other, even deadlier, diseases

Wednesday July 01 2020

Historically, diseases can make a major comeback during a pandemic. As the world focuses on the Covid-19 pandemic, experts fear losing ground in the long fight against other infectious diseases such as Aids, tuberculosis (TB) and cholera that kill millions of people every year. Also at risk are decades-long efforts that led to World Health Organization (WHO) deadlines for eradicating malaria, polio and other illnesses.

The resources needed to treat these diseases could run out as they are repurposed for Covid-19. According to Dr John Nkengasong, the head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), hospitals are so overwhelmed with Covid-19 cases that they’re redirecting medical staff, running short on supplies and suspending other key health services.

Covid-19 lockdowns have interrupted the flow of supplies of critical medicine, protective gear and oxygen, hence mortality from vaccine-preventable and treatable conditions can increase.

The fear of disease resurgence is aggravated by delays in immunisation in many countries, Kenya included. The Measles & Rubella Initiative says over 20 countries have reported vaccine shortages due to border closures and air travel disruptions, mostly in Africa, and 14 vaccination campaigns postponed.

The international organisation said measles immunisation campaigns in 24 countries have been affected, and it fears that more than 117 million children in 37 countries may miss out. In most countries, door-to-door polio vaccination was halted to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus. Prevention of mosquito-borne diseases, like distribution of nets and malaria campaigns, was also hampered.

During the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak, the increased number of deaths caused by other diseases attributable to health system failures exceeded those from the epidemic. The WHO says the best defence against an outbreak is a strong health system. Covid-19 has revealed how fragile health systems and services are in many countries.

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Governments must balance between responding to Covid-19 and maintaining essential health service delivery and mitigating the risk of system collapse. Countries should identify essential services that will be prioritised to maintain continuity of service delivery and make strategic shifts to ensure that increasingly limited resources provide maximum benefits for their populations. They also need to comply with the highest standards in precautions.

Essential services include routine vaccinations, reproductive health services, such as care during pregnancy and childbirth and care of infants and older people, management of mental health conditions, as well as non-communicable and infectious diseases like HIV, malaria and TB, critical inpatient therapies, management of emergency health conditions, and provision of auxiliary services such as basic diagnostic imaging, laboratory services and blood banks.

Kapelo Emmanuel, West Pokot

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