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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.