Casualties of COVID-19: Measuring the Length, Width, and Depth of a Pandemic’s Impact

An editorial in Nature on August 12, 2020 entitled, “How to stop COVID-19 fuelling a resurgence of AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis” provided four suggested solutions specifically for these diseases in the wake of Sars-CoV-2. For reference, here are the four approaches suggested as written in the editorial (#4 in detail):

  1. Hospitals and health authorities in affected cities and regions must recognize that AIDS, malaria and TB are surging again.
  2. Researchers must continue to refine their models using more real-world data.
  3. There is a need for public-information campaigns
  4. These campaigns cannot on their own keep surgeries and wards open, or equipment functioning. The resurgence of infectious diseases has created a greater demand for tests, treatments and research. All of these need more funding. 

Do those strike you as odd? The entire economy of nations along with the focus of their healthcare has been derailed and distracted by COVID-19 and the solution for these diseases is to recognize them, improve models, inform the public and seek more funding. You are either completely in tuned with the author in seeing that more funding is needed or you are a bit miffed that, in the wake of all that is happening, THESE guys want more money?

The US is a major contributor to the Global Fund for HIV, TB, and Malaria (the largest funder of these activities) and the total pledges to date for the GF approach $69 billion dollars with the US providing $54 billion (92%). From 2008 to 2016, the US contribution increased almost every year from $840 million to $1.65 billion annually until 2015 when it was frozen at $1.35 billion until 2019. In 2020, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic (i.e., during calendar year 2019 when the fiscal year 2020 budget was being planned), the amount from the US dropped to $958 million (2010 levels), representing a 30% drop in funding. So, to recap: The Global Fund started the year down by nearly 30% of what had been available, COVID-19 derailed all activities and drained the fiscal resources of patients and nations, and now, the progress that has been made on these diseases has been set back bay possibly a decade. The situation couldn’t be more desperate and, YES, the program needs a massive increase in funding. But, to be very clear, that massive increase pre-dated COVID-19 and represents something more distressing underneath.

I was fortunate to give the Michelle Rablais lecture at the ASCP Annual Meeting in Phoenix in 2019 where I carefully laid out the costs of controlling JUST malaria (not to mention TB and HIV) and demonstrated for the audience that as the number of cases get smaller and smaller (because your measures are so successful), the cost of finding the remaining cases goes up. As we successfully approach elimination or eradication of a disease, the final push requires at least the same but often more funding to make it across the finish line. This is not an opinion but is based on an enormous amount of data from other diseases as well as from the world’s experience with the first malaria eradication campaign. For HIV, we can’t eliminate it or eradicate it but we have converted it to a chronic disease and, therefore, infrastructure and funding to support patients ongoing is needed and by any form of math has to increase as the population lives longer and more people are added to the disease pool (although those numbers had been greatly reducing). Tuberculosis in its simplest form is a disease of poverty related to lack of access to drugs and healthcare, cramped living conditions, etc. When a pandemic derails the economy and causes the poor to become even more poor, tuberculosis is going to surge.

To the authors of this editorial I offer a gracious thank you and note with a heavy heart that the estimate of $28.5 billion additional dollars being needed to make up the ground lost by COVID-19 does also include the ground they had already lost by defunding principles trending over the last 4 years for global health.

But at least the countries that struggle with these diseases only have HIV, TB, and malaria to worry about, right? Wrong. In almost every low- to middle-income country where HIV, TB, and malaria are or have been major health challenges, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and mental health are equivalent or worse health problems than compared with high income countries. Do not be dissuaded by sheer numbers and always consider the outcomes, pre-COVID-19. For cancer, mortality in the US averages around 35% while in Africa it is closer to 80%. In full COVID-19 response mode, cancer programs—fledgling, underfunded, and disorganized—became non-existent and are only now (nearly 6 months after closing) starting to re-open and find their way back to where they were—fledgling, underfunded, and disorganized! Diabetics cannot go 6 months without insulin, hypertensive patients cannot have unregulated blood pressure, etc. While in the safety of a high-income country, makeshift systems, telehealth, contactless visits, etc. were brought on board to keep some semblance of a healthcare system in place, cancer patients were delayed in receiving diagnoses and treatment due to rationing of time and elimination of “elective” procedures.

As the data continues to be tallied and as models continue to be developed to understand just how much we have lost from our failed response to COVID-19 as a world and certainly as a nation, please do not slough off the staggering “additional” deaths that are going to be reported because of patients who didn’t have access to their regular health system. Every person from November 2019 until the end of this pandemic whose death occurred because their regular supply lines were disrupted, their planned treatments were cancelled, their medical supplies were not available, or their access to life-saving interventions were delayed is just as much a casualty from COVID-19 as a directly infected patient who succumbs to the disease. Our recent experience as a nation with the disasters in Puerto Rico around both the confusing death tolls from the hurricanes as well as the total death toll from the fiscal challenges of their medical system (prior to COVID-19) should serve as valuable lessons. Let us not come out of the other side of this pandemic with a similar disregard for the value of every human life or without an understanding of how our individual and collective mistakes as a nation have lead directly to these effects.

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-Dan Milner, MD, MSc, spent 10 years at Harvard where he taught pathology, microbiology, and infectious disease. He began working in Africa in 1997 as a medical student and has built an international reputation as an expert in cerebral malaria. In his current role as Chief Medical officer of ASCP, he leads all PEPFAR activities as well as the Partners for Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment in Africa Initiative.

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