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Opinion: In the shadow of Covid-19, silent killers re-emerge

CNN logo CNN 8/19/2020 Opinion by Nick Prince
NEW YORK- NOVEMBER 27: A doctor examines the x-rays of a tuberculosis (TB) patient at a TB clinic Novmeber 27, 2002 in Brooklyn, New York. Healthcare workers around the country oversee patients in a program called Directly Observed Therapy (DOT) that ensures carriers of the tuberculosis bacteria take their medication. Tuberculosis is a contagious disease of the lungs that is spread through the air and kills around 2 million people annually, mainly in third world countries. It is relatively easy and affordable to treat, with a six-month series of drugs costing around 10 dollars. While the number of TB cases in the United States has dropped in recent years, the disease is still particularly strong among the foreign-born, the homeless and impoverished contributing to the deaths of thousands of Americans yearly. As of 2000, over 16,000 Americans have contracted tuberculosis. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images) © Spencer Platt/Getty Images/File NEW YORK- NOVEMBER 27: A doctor examines the x-rays of a tuberculosis (TB) patient at a TB clinic Novmeber 27, 2002 in Brooklyn, New York. Healthcare workers around the country oversee patients in a program called Directly Observed Therapy (DOT) that ensures carriers of the tuberculosis bacteria take their medication. Tuberculosis is a contagious disease of the lungs that is spread through the air and kills around 2 million people annually, mainly in third world countries. It is relatively easy and affordable to treat, with a six-month series of drugs costing around 10 dollars. While the number of TB cases in the United States has dropped in recent years, the disease is still particularly strong among the foreign-born, the homeless and impoverished contributing to the deaths of thousands of Americans yearly. As of 2000, over 16,000 Americans have contracted tuberculosis. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Deadly infectious diseases are threatening to regain a foothold in many countries, fueled by Covid-19 and the unprecedented effort to contain this ongoing global pandemic.

Vaccinations are down across the Asia Pacific and in most areas of the world. Diseases such as polio, measles and tuberculosis are at very real risk of re-emerging on a large scale, causing widespread death, illness and disability.

The world has justifiably turned its attention to the fight against Covid-19, with national and international restrictions playing a critical part in slowing the spread of the virus. Massive resources have been allocated globally on testing, tracing, isolation, quarantine and treatment. Entire hospitals and health clinics have been re-prioritized to respond to Covid-19.

a close up of a man wearing glasses and looking at the camera: Nick Prince © Peter Kervarec Ballarat Nick Prince

Health care staff in countries like Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan have been redirected to contain the surging virus.

Mass polio vaccinations have been deferred several times over in the Philippines, in an effort to reduce the risk of spreading Covid-19 -- a decision that makes sense, given that we would not want to see more health care workers, parents and children put at risk of Covid-19.

Vaccinations recently resumed in the Philippines -- all done under extreme care and caution -- with medical workers and Red Cross volunteers helping to keep everyone safe. No one wants to catch polio, a disabling and life-threatening disease that, as the CDC notes, can infect a person's spinal cord, causing paralysis.

The world has made significant progress in either eradicating or controlling the spread of several deadly infectious diseases that have long plagued humankind, such as smallpox, tuberculosis (TB), Ebola, dengue and malaria. Just prior to Covid-19, the world was again on the verge of wiping out polio in most countries.

TB death rates are down by an estimated 42% over the past two decades, according to the latest World Health Organization (WHO) report. Persistent efforts have seen malaria deaths slowly decline globally.

Vaccination campaigns were successful in disrupting the spread of measles and rubella, to the extent that their deadly and debilitating consequences are a fading memory in many countries.

But the concerted efforts to slow the spread of Covid-19 are having unrecognized consequences, threatening to undermine these hard-won gains.

The race to discover a Covid-19 vaccine has seemingly put on hold research into other preventable diseases -- including malaria, dengue and Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, -- all of which remain a deadly public health threat.

Public health efforts like physical distancing have disrupted most vaccination programs, threatening to undermine the herd immunity that keeps these viruses at bay.

Other illnesses have been left untreated, as people are less likely to seek treatment due to restrictions to travel and the fear of becoming infected with Covid-19.

Volunteers and staff who have been providing health education and primary health care services are now working in Covid-19 clinics, their previous activities scaled back or put on hold.

Studies are revealing this emerging secondary health crisis. Recent research published in the Lancet Public Health Journal found that HIV, malaria and TB caused deaths could increase by 10, 20 and 36% respectively over the next five years due to the pandemic.

The research -- undertaken by the Imperial College London -- has predicted that disruptions to TB services alone could cause as many as 6.3 million additional cases and 1.4 million deaths worldwide over the next five years.

This is only one of a growing number of reports showing the double deadly health consequences of Covid-19.

Modeling by WHO is warning that disruptions could turn back 20 years of progress in the fight against malaria. Other research by WHO revealed that routine immunizations had been impacted in at least 68 countries worldwide, posing big risks to more than 80 million babies under the age of one in those countries.

Without widespread vaccinations, herd immunity will diminish and cases of measles, rubella and diphtheria -- among others -- will re-emerge with risk of mass outbreaks.

The deadly consequences of diseases like TB and measles may have faded from memory for many, yet they still lurk in our homes, suppressed by vaccination programs and the resulting immunity in the community.

I have witnessed the deadly and debilitating consequences of these viruses if left unchecked. Last year I helped coordinate the response to the measles outbreak in Samoa that killed 81 people -- most of them children -- before being brought under control.

While working for Red Cross Red Crescent in South Africa, I witnessed a resurgence in TB as the nation battled with the deadly H1N1 flu pandemic. It took a huge concerted effort to bring this H1N1 flu virus under control.

The fight against Covid-19 is critical, but experience and history shows that we also need to continue tackling other dangerous infectious diseases that we have been battling for generations. If we concede the ground, we have made with those diseases over recent decades we face an even greater global health crisis.

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