Ebola fever screening in Guinea

A Guinean student gets his temperature checked in January 2015 in Conakry. Malaria's early symptoms of fever, headache and body aches mimic those of Ebola virus disease. (Cellou Binani/AFP/Getty)

The Ebola epidemic in Guinea led to a rising number of malaria deaths as patients likely shunned health clinics out of fear, researchers say.

An estimated 74,000 cases of malaria went untreated in 2014 compared with before the Ebola virus hit, according to a study published in this week's issue of Lancet Infectious Diseases.

Malaria is the leading killer of children in Guinea and one of the main causes of fever and visits to health care facilities in the country year round. Malaria's early symptoms of fever, headache and body aches mimic those of Ebola virus disease.

For the study, lead author Dr. Mateusz Plucinski from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta and his colleagues surveyed 60 health facilities in Guinea's most Ebola-affected districts and 60 in districts unaffected by Ebola in December 2014.

"The reduction in the delivery of malaria care because of the Ebola-virus-disease epidemic threatens malaria control in Guinea," the study's authors wrote.

Plucinski said it's hard to say how many of the 74,000 suspected cases might have died from malaria but it was probably "substantially higher" than the number of Ebola deaths, currently 2,444.

The number of people treated with injectable antimalarial drugs dropped by up to 69 per cent in Ebola-affected areas, the researchers found.

They said interviews with health-care workers and community health workers supported their hypothesis that the decline in attendance likely pointed to the population's fear of accessing the formal health sector.

In November 2014, the World Health Organization recommended mass treatment for presumed malaria when patients present with fever in countries with outbreaks of Ebola.

Dr. Franco Pagnoni of the World Health Organization said the "collateral damage of epidemics" is well known.

In a commentary published with the study, Pagnon concluded that to restore the credibility of health service delivery, Ebola-specific activities such as safe burials need to be complemented with standard health services, such as distributing treated bednets and providing childhood vaccinations.

With files from Associated Press