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THE WASHINGTON POST

COVID-19 Is Bad News For Those Fighting Other Diseases

A health worker gives a polio vaccine to a child in Pakistan.
A health worker gives a polio vaccine to a child in Pakistan.
Hannah Steinkopf-Frank

To call it a "side effect" of the pandemic would miss the point entirely. Beyond the devastating health impacts of coronavirus on those infected is the impact the crisis is having on research and treatment for other diseases.


Nobody can argue with the massive public attention and funds focused on coronavirus, considered the worst worldwide disease outbreak in a century, infecting nearly 5 million and killing more than 320,000 people, while shutting down large parts of the global economy.


Still, experts say we are witnessing a resurgence of what were assumed to be largely controlled diseases, notably in developing countries, while resources are also being diverted from laboratories searching for cures for longstanding illnesses that affect millions around the world.


Take, for example, cancer, which is estimated to kill more than nine million people each year, and still has no definitive cure. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the American Cancer Society estimates that more than 50% of cancer research in the United States has been put on hold. Many labs are closed and some researchers are switching their efforts to coronavirus. Yale Medical School Professor Kevin Sheth estimated that globally, 200,000 clinical trials have been impacted. As just one example, Dr. Gwen Nichols, the chief medical officer of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, told Healthline that the research process for blood cancer has been slowed significantly.


Medical professionals also warn that certain ailments are going untreated because of lockdowns put in place. One study estimates that 1.4 million more people will die of tuberculosis by 2025 because of the lack of treatment during the current crisis. In certain high incidence countries like India, Ukraine and Kenya, cases are going undiagnosed and undetected, with infection levels creeping up to 2013 highs, according to a study published by the Stop TB Partnership. Described by the World Health Organization as the "world's top infectious killer," TB is highly contagious and a vaccine only exists for children, not adults. Those with weakened immune systems and previous lung damage are likely to face more severe effects if they are infected by the coronavirus.


Then there is polio, an infectious disease that used to paralyze hundreds of thousands of children a year until it was almost eradicated by a vaccine. But there has been a resurgence this year, with The Washington Post reporting that Pakistan, Afghanistan and more than a dozen African countries have stopped or postponed delivering vaccines because of travel restrictions and the difficulty of administering drop vaccines at a safe distance.


Coronavirus has, for now, pushed these and other more or less pressing medical issues to the side. The longer-term hope is that the current crisis shines unprecedented attention on the need to invest in both long-term research and emergency care. Saving lives and defeating disease require attention to the entire organism of our health care systems.


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