According to a new study by a team at the University of Melbourne in Australia, DNA fingerprinting has revealed how the malaria parasite alters genes to hide from the human immune system. It’s a clever trick that lets the parasite stay undetected, re-infecting the same people again and again. And it’s just one reason why the latest news on Malaria prevention is so very welcome. Here’s a look at what’s going on.
Is malaria finally on the run?
The World Health Organisation wants to wipe malaria out by the year by 2040, despite increasing resistance to the drugs and insecticides used to kill the mosquitoes that carry it. Head for Ghana, Kenya or Malawi next year, and you’ll arrive at a destination where, for the first time, a vaccine for malaria is being piloted.
Why Kenya, Ghana and Malawi? It’s because these countries already have good prevention and vaccination protocols, but still, suffer high rates of malaria. The vaccine is only partially effective but all the same, it’s the best shot we’ve had so far of limiting the havoc the disease causes across the world.
The vaccine will be trialled on children since they’re most at risk of dying from the disease, and it could end up saving tens of thousands of lives when combined with existing preventative measures like nets. The signs are looking good, with the only challenge being whether other developing nations can provide the four doses needed for every child.
How bad is the malaria threat to travellers?
Malaria infects over 200 million people a year and kills 500,000 or so, mostly children and mostly in Africa. Climate change is allowing the infectious mosquitoes who carry the disease to migrate northwards, making it a threat to more countries than ever as time passes. Sub-Saharan Africa is currently the hardest hit, suffering around 90% of cases worldwide.
Previous efforts have made headway – or have they?
Between 200 and 2015 a massive effort was made globally to combat the disease. It led to 62% fewer deaths, which sounds amazing. But because the estimates were based mostly on computer modelling and the data couldn’t always be trusted, it’s hard to tell what the real life effect was. In fact, officials are still unclear whether outbreaks have been rising or falling since the new millennium started.
The details of the new vaccine
So far it has taken decades of work and hundreds of millions of dollars to get the vaccine to this critical stage, ready to be tested on humans. The vaccine will be trialled on children aged 5-17 months old, and its creators are hoping that it will perform as well in real life as it did in the lab.
The vaccine has been developed by the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, and the first phase of the trial will be paid for by the global vaccine alliance GAVI, UNITAID and Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
Uganda joins in the fight
The government of Uganda announced at their five year ‘Malaria Action’ programme for 45 at-risk districts, aimed at getting rid of the disease altogether. The plan is set to cost more than 40 million US dollars and is being paid for by the USAID Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and UKAID, in partnership with the Ministry of Health and National Malaria Consortium. 13 million Ugandans will receive treatment.
Making mosquitoes infertile
There are more imaginative initiatives under way, some of which involve altering the genetics of mosquitoes so the males are infertile, which should ultimately kill off the insects very effectively. Together with the new vaccine, if it performs as well as expected, all this great scientific effort adds up to a very hard time for the insects in future, and hints that malaria may soon become less of a threat than it has ever been in human history. Which will be excellent news indeed.
Which countries currently have the biggest malaria risk?
Malaria affects much more than Africa. If you’re travelling to Asia, Central or South America, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the Middle East or some islands in the Pacific, it makes sense to protect yourself as well as you can, and take all the recommended precautions. If that’s you, here’s a link to our page about staying safe from malaria.