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Sri Lanka must sustain its health gains: malaria a case in point

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by Prof. Kamini Mendis

Today, April 25, is World Malaria Day, and as many countries in the tropical world are laboring to control malaria and others racing towards the finish line to eliminate the disease, we in Sri Lanka are enjoying the prestige of being malaria-free. More importantly our people, possibly unknown to many of them, are benefiting from being free of a scourge, which destroyed lives and livelihoods, which took away most of our health budgets for insecticides, which stifled the cognitive development of our children and which greatly hindered Sri Lanka’s economic development for centuries past.

Today, we may be beleaguered by many health problems, not least, by the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic, but malaria is no more. The year 2012 saw the last case of malaria transmitted by a mosquitoe in Sri Lanka – a colossal achievement by any standards. And despite anxieties and worries whether the disease will return, the country has been kept free of malaria transmission for nearly nine years now, thanks to an exceptionally robust programme within the Ministry of Health, the Anti Malaria Campaign.

What we should be talking about today, though, is not the globally acclaimed achievement of malaria elimination from Sri Lanka, but whether and how the country can sustain its malaria-free status. A famed example etched in global public health chronicles is the historic achievement of Sri Lanka in 1963 of nearly eliminating malaria, and of the disease returning with a vengeance, to devastate the country for the next 50 years. This is a poignant reminder that malaria could still return.

Why so? The mosquito that transmits malaria is prevalent in parts of the country that were previously malarious. Even a new and highly efficient vector mosquito, which transmits malaria in India has been recently and inadvertently introduced into the country. Its implication is that if malaria returns to Sri Lanka it will affect cities as well as rural areas to which it was confined in the past. The threat of malaria becoming endemic again comes from imported malaria patients – those who acquire the infection abroad and return to Sri Lanka with the disease.

Most imported malaria infections are acquired in neighbouring India and African countries, and brought to Sri Lanka by such persons as business travelers, pilgrims, imported labour, and members of the armed forces and the Police Department who return from United Nations Peace Keeping Missions in malarious countries. Unless such infected persons are detected and treated without delay they could infect mosquitoes, and malaria could become endemic again – a possibility, that many health experts agree, must be averted at any cost.

What then must Sri Lanka do to remain free of malaria? It is to sustain a state-of- the art surveillance system to detect malaria patients returning from overseas and treat them without delay so that they will not infect mosquitoes and thereby transmit the disease to other people. Malaria can be easily diagnosed by testing a sample of blood using a rapid antigen test or by examining a blood smear under a microscope. Such diagnostic facilities are widely available throughout the country, and highly effective medicines are available to treat the disease.

Yet, simple as it might sound, the task of maintaining a rigorous programme of malaria case surveillance and treatment is fraught with challenges. This is because malaria is a rare and forgotten disease in the country today. Medical doctors fail, only too often, to test for malaria when a patient presents with fever. No blame to the physicians here, because there are so many other far more common causes of fever in the country – dengue, and a spate of other viral and bacterial infections to be explored as a cause of fever rather than malaria. But the clue to suspecting malaria is taking a history from the patient of recent travel overseas, which if present should place malaria high on the list of diseases to be tested for.

So, a combination of fever and having recently returned from overseas should be the signal to test for malaria. This is a message that the Anti Malaria Campaign is vigorously transmitting to its medical colleagues throughout the country – “when a patient presents with fever, ask for a travel history and test for malaria”. The Anti Malaria Campaign does far more than reminding doctors. It screens high-risk traveler groups for malaria throughout the country year round, and when a patient is detected it sets in motion a series of activities to ensure that the patient is cured, and that the infection has not spread to others in the country. it keeps track of the mosquito vector in all parts of the country and even controls it where necessary. It provides prophylactic medicines for travelers free-of-charge, and is the sole custodian of antimalarial medicines in the country, its staff being on call 24 hours a day seven days a week to keep the country malaria-free.

In truth, and the inspiration for me to write this article is that Sri Lanka has not had the most impressive record of sustaining its health gains, which have been made with enormous effort and major financial investments. We eliminated leprosy in 1995 but the disease has now returned to concerning levels in most parts of the country. We eliminated lymphatic filariasis a few years ago, but there is evidence that the disease may be lurking in parts of the country, with a risk of its transmission being resumed. Intestinal worm infestations, which sapped the nutrition of children for generations, have greatly declined in incidence, as have many other sanitation-related infectious diseases such as hepatitis. But, can we follow these achievements through to the point of extinction, and even more importantly, can we sustain the gains made?

“Out of sight, out of mind” is, unfortunately, a slogan, which most poor developing countries seem to live by when it comes to controlling diseases. They function on flimsy and short-sighted grounds that when a disease is not a health burden any more, the limited budgets for health are better assigned to other more prevalent health problems and diseases. Such thinking is clearly flawed on many counts: As careful studies and estimates have shown the price of preventing the return of malaria is only a mere fraction of the cost that Sri Lanka will have to bear if malaria returns to the country. It is estimated that the return on an investment of one rupee to prevent malaria will be 13 rupees in terms of the savings gained by preventing the return of malaria.

Developing countries must also desist a poorly informed but fashionable idea promoted in health circles even globally, of promoting the integration of dedicated disease control programmes into the general health services no sooner than the disease has been eliminated. Disbanding of these excellent programmes, the very ones which once eliminated the disease has been to the peril of countries as in the case of leprosy in Sri Lanka. Assigning the work of the leprosy campaign to the general health services too soon may not have been the most judicious of actions, and it may have contributed to the rapid return of the disease.

It is obvious that the workforce that was needed when a disease is highly prevalent would not be required to the same magnitude or degree of functionality when the disease is no longer a major burden. A carefully planned transition over time to shift work programmes from intervention delivery to surveillance, and share work time of staff with other related diseases has to be made, if it must, whilst maintaining a core of dedicated expertise on the disease at a central programme level.

The challenges of sustaining a malaria-free Sri Lanka and of keeping at bay other infectious diseases that we have successfully eliminated are many, but none that cannot be overcome by continued investment in, and maintaining the focus on, these diseases. It is an issue that falls broadly under the umbrella of “health security’, a term that has risen in importance with the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, in the highly connected world that we live in. Today public health has come to the fore of our consciousness with the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Let our policy makers not forget that eliminating diseases is not the end-game, and that keeping those diseases at bay is as important as fighting other prevailing health problems.

 

About the author

Kamini Mendis is an Emeritus Professor and an international expert on malaria. She was instrumental in launching a Global Initiative to eliminate malaria in 1998 while working for the World Health Organisation Geneva. She has provided expert guidance to Sri Lanka and many countries  on combatting malaria,  and is gratified by the success achieved in the past few decades in many parts of the world. She continues to be engaged in advising the global and regional health communities and the Ministry of Health of Sri Lanka on the subject.



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Facilities for infected pregnant women inadequate – SLCOG

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

The distribution and availability of high-flow oxygen machines to treat Covid-19 infected pregnant women were not adequate, President of the Sri Lanka College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists (SLCOG,) Dr. Pradeep de Silva said yesterday.

Dr. de Silva said that while they had not yet faced any lack of oxygen in treating Covid-19 infected pregnant mothers, things could change rapidly given the limited availability of equipment. “Having an adequate supply of oxygen alone is not enough. You need high flow oxygen machines, and 50 litres of oxygen per minute is needed to operate a high flow oxygen machine. I do not know how many machines we have in this country but where I work, Castle Street Maternity Hospital has about four. We need to estimate the number of these machines we require and how much oxygen we want. From my understanding, the distribution and availability of high flow oxygen machines to treat Covid-19 infected pregnant mothers is not adequate.”

Dr de Silva said that Sri Lanka needed about 50–200 high-dependency unit (HDU) beds per district, based on the population, 10–50 high flow oxygen machines per district, four for ten ICU beds and two dedicated Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) machines.

“If we get this, we will be able to deal with pregnant women who develop complications from COVID-19 for the next four to five years,” he said.

Dr de Silva said that currently one pregnant woman who has been infected with COVID-19 is receiving ECMO treatment. There is also a shortage of beds at the Mulleriyawa Base Hospital, which has the largest ward dedicated to COVID-19 infected pregnant women. On Thursday, Obstetrician & Gynaecologist, Dr Mayuramana Dewolage, who heads the ward that treats COVID-19 infected pregnant women at the Mulleriyawa Base Hospital, said that they only had 37 beds were dedicated to pregnant women with COVID-19. They didn’t have any HDU or ICU beds dedicated for their use, he said.

“We share HDU and ICU beds with other patients at Mulleriyawa Base Hospital,” Dr Dewolage said.

The President of the SLCOG also urged all hospitals to find a separate space for pregnant women who were receiving treatment at their institutions. When COVID-19 pandemic started, the Health Ministry instructed all hospitals to do so but it was now obvious that those instructions had not been followed, he said.

“When the second wave started people got ready but later, they just stopped getting ready and now we are unprepared to meet the challenges of the third wave. We need to find a way to manage this. If the Ministry of Health has not prepared a plan, we are ready to help formulate one,” the President of the SLCOG said.

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Those who had AstraZeneca first jab, should take Sputnik V with adenovirus 26 – Specialist

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

If those who have taken the first dose of AstraZeneca are to receive a second jab of Sputnik V, they should take the first Sputnik V vaccine with adenovirus 26 (Ad26), Consultant Immunologist and head of the department of Immunology-MRI, Dr Nihan Rajiva de Silva says.

Dr. de Silva said that the first dose of Sputnik had Ad 26 and the second had adenovirus-5. “Adenovirus-5 is common. We may have been exposed to that and we may have developed antibodies. Adenovirus-26 is rarer and we will better respond to that. That is why the vaccine-maker has used adenovirus-26 in the first vaccine. So, if you had a first jab of AstraZeneca and you are to get the second dose from Sputnik-V remember to get the first jab,” Dr. de Silva said.

He added that any vaccine has the chance of reducing the severity of the virus and that the general public should get vaccinated when the opportunity is available.

Dr. de Silva said that there was a shortage of AstraZeneca vaccines because the Serum Institute of India could not deliver shipments as promised.

“However, we are now getting Sputnik V vaccines and we are looking at mixing them. There is a study in Russia about the efficiency of mixing Sputnik V with AstraZeneca and the results should be out soon. I can say that theoretically mixing the two vaccines should work,” he said.

Dr. de Silva added that the AstraZeneca vaccine should work against the new variant spreading in the country.

Consultant Cardiologist at the National Hospital of Sri Lanka, Dr. Gotabaya Ranasinghe said that those with heart issues, non-communicable diseases and were obese must get vaccinated to minimise the complications of Covid-19.

Dr. Ranasinghe said that those in the above-mentioned categories were at risk of contracting, getting complications and dying of COVID-19 and research had proven that vaccination would reduce the chance of such eventualities.

“If you worry about getting vaccinated, talk to your doctor. Don’t seek advice from friends and family,” he said.

Dr. Ranasinghe added that they had limited the number of heart surgeries they do due to COVID-19. ICU beds used for heart patients too were being now allocated for COVID-19 patients. “We only do the most pressing cases. But this means that the waiting list keeps on growing. Now, the waiting list is over eight months. If we limit the surgeries more and keep taking away ICU beds available for those who have had heart surgeries, the waiting list will grow further,” he said.

The Consultant Cardiologist also advised the public to eat healthy food and engage in moderate exercises, at least five days a week. This will reduce the mental stress as well as boost the immune system. ‘We recommend moderate exercises like jogging and brisk walking, for 30 minutes, five days a week. Being healthy is as important as wearing masks or adhering to physical distancing,” he said.

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STF raids narcotics distribution centre close to Bloemendhal police station

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Acting on information received from the Organised Crime Fighting Unit of the elite Special Task Force (STF), police commandos, on Thursday (6), arrested a person running a narcotic distributing network, 1.5 km away from the Bloemendhal police station.

The STF identified the suspect as Thawasidevan Pradeep Kumar, 21, a key associate of one Suresh with links to a criminal outfit run by Kimbulaele Guna, now absconding in India.

DIG (Legal) Ajith Rohana said that the raiding party had recovered 2 kg, 22 g and 88mg of ‘ICE,’ with a street value of Rs 25 mn in addition to 4kg, 2 g and 527 mg of substance known as ‘hash,’ as well as Rs 400,000 in cash and a mobile phone.

Kimbulaele Guna is believed to have sought refuge following an LTTE attempt to assassinate President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga at the final PA presidential election rally at the Town Hall in December 1999.

DIG Rohana said that Guna’s brother Suresh was a major heroin distributor in Colombo. The STF later handed over the suspect, along with contraband and locally made ‘hash,’ and his phone to the Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB). The raid on the heroin distribution centre situated in Aluth Mawatha, Colombo 15, followed specific information received as regards the ‘operation’ conducted with impunity (SF)

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