The Lagos Commissioner for Health, Prof. Akin Abayomi, has disclosed that the state is recording cases of people treating themselves for malaria only for them to realise after testing that it is the dreaded coronavirus popularly known as COVID-19.
Medical experts, however, say the best way to distinguish malaria from COVID-19 is to get tested. They said:
“We are seeing too many cases of people treating themselves for malaria multiple times and only realise it’s COVID-19 after testing.”
The commissioner said sometimes, such people realised the error “too late” and sometimes “show up too sick.”
“The symptoms are similar, but they are not the same. If you suspect malaria, please go for a COVID-19 test,” Abayomi counselled.
The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control had earlier said though COVID-19 presents symptoms similar to malaria such as fever, both diseases are caused by different organisms and differ in mode of transmission.
NCDC, however, warned Nigerians against mistaking COVID-19 and malaria for the same infection.
Speaking with PUNCH HealthWise, renowned Nigerian virologist, Prof. Oyewale Tomori, said laboratory investigation is the only way to correctly and definitively diagnose either COVID-19 or malaria in locations where malaria is endemic. In his words:
“Malaria or COVID-19 affects people in different ways. Most infected people will either be asymptomatic, or develop mild-to-moderate illness and recover without hospitalisation.
“The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, dry cough and tiredness, while the less common symptoms include headache, aches and pains, sore throat, diarrhoea, conjunctivitis, and loss of taste or smell.
“Some people also experience serious symptoms like difficulty in breathing or shortness of breath, chest pain or pressure, loss of speech or movement.”
The virologist added that malaria shares some of these symptoms with COVID-19 such as chills, fever and sweating, headache and pain in muscles or abdomen, nausea or vomiting and chest or abdominal pain and sometimes, cough. The expert noted:
“It is difficult to differentiate between malaria and COVID-19, especially mild cases, in an area endemic for malaria.
“Therefore, laboratory investigation is the only way to correctly and definitively diagnose either COVID-19 or malaria in locations where malaria is endemic.”
An epidemiologist and population health scientist at the Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Dr. Ibraheem Abioye, said though differentiating malaria from COVID-19 can be challenging in the Nigerian setting, malaria does not typically have respiratory symptoms like cough or chest pain. Dr Abioye stated:
“Differentiating malaria from COVID-19 can be challenging in our setting. It typically requires careful understanding of the symptoms a patient complains about. Both malaria and COVID-19 tend to present with fever and generalised body pains, but malaria does not typically have respiratory symptoms like cough or chest pain.
“In addition, COVID-19 could present with a wide variety of other symptoms, depending on whether it impacts specific organs of the body.
“Malaria can be severe as well to affect multiple organs of the body, but we only tend to encounter that type of severity in children less than five years and also in pregnant women.”
Also, the Principal Investigator, ANDI Centre of Excellence for Malaria Diagnosis, Department of Medical Microbiology and Parasitology, College of Medicine, University of Lagos, Prof. Wellington Oyibo, in an interview with Punch Correspondent said there must be due diligence to testing. He said:
“Every infectious disease presents with malaria-like symptoms. Some non-infectious disease like cancer will still be giving you some level of fever.
“A human being cannot be a tool for diagnosis except they do a test or else you won’t know whether the person is having bacterial respiratory infection due to virus or other things.
“At every point, what we recommend is that there must be a malaria test and then do further assessments.
“When someone presents with any disease, it’s not written on the person’s head but it could be upper respiratory tract infection or lower respiratory tract infection bacteria and it could be a viral agent.”
Continuing, the microbiologist said,
“The best way to look at this is to look at it in total. We have the rapid diagnostic test for malaria. Nobody can look at any fever symptoms and say it is a particular disease; there must be a test.
“The recommendation is that there must be a test to be sure it is malaria and possibly a full blood count to see the blood feature and know exactly what it is
“Mind you, the person who presents with COVID-19 can still have malaria, but when we do the full blood count, we will be able to evaluate the patient’s overall health.”