World Malaria Day briefing highlights global killer

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To commemorate World Malaria Day, top malaria researchers came together Wednesday to present their work at a research and development event on Capitol Hill, hosted by Malaria No More.  Representatives from 20 academic and research organizations discussed the contributions American private companies, universities and research institutions are making to the fight against malaria through R&D.

According to the latest annual report from the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI), the risk of becoming infected with and dying from malaria has declined steadily over the past decade thanks to support from PMI, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the World Bank, national governments and other donors. The World Health Organization’s 2011 World Malaria Report indicates that the number of deaths from malaria declined from 985,500 in 2000 to about 655,000 in 2010.  Ninety percent of deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa and 85 percent occur in children less than five years of age.

Studies have also shown that malaria is a risk factor of concurrent HIV infection, at the population level.  A study conducted last year by researchers at the University of Kentucky showed that individuals who live in areas with high malaria rates are twice as likely to be infected with HIV compared to individuals who live in areas with low rates.  Other studies have shown that HIV viral load levels in infected individuals nearly double when he or she becomes infected with malaria, increasing the risk for further HIV transmission.  Researchers agree that more research needs to be done to fully grasp the interaction between HIV and malaria.

Researchers at the briefing celebrated achievements made so far but warned that malaria remains a huge public health hazard. With the threats of antimalarial drug resistance, insecticide resistance, and uncertainties about donor and national funding for malaria control, the progress made is fragile.

University of South Florida professor Dr. Dennis Kyle explained that researchers are beginning to see resistance to the strongest and best antimalarial drugs in Southeast Asia, and if drug resistance were to occur in Africa, it would be a major setback in malaria control efforts in the continent.

Dr. David Wright, with Vanderbilt University, explained that drug resistance occurs due to misdiagnosis of malaria.  In resource poor settings where diagnosis is difficult due to lack of basic services such as access to clean water and electricity, patients are often diagnosed with malaria when they aren’t infected.  He explained that twice as many people are treated for malaria than those who are actually infected.  When patients are mistakenly treated for malaria, they build up resistance to antimalarial drugs and are unresponsive to the same drugs when they actually become infected.  For this reason, better diagnostics methods are critical in the fight against malaria, Wright said.

In addition to drug resistance, malaria control efforts also have to contend with insecticide resistance.  Mosquito resistance to the only recommended insecticide for use on insecticide treated bed nets is already being reported from multiple sites in Africa.  Several of the organizations who were at the event are working on developing more effective insecticides.

The researchers stressed the importance of fighting malaria to strengthen U.S. national security interests, as malaria is the biggest infectious disease threat to American soldiers.  Dr. Kimberly Brown, CEO of Amethyst Technologies, explained that in 2003 when a regiment of U.S. Marines were deployed to Liberia, 30 percent became infected with malaria within 10 days.  It’s of utmost importance to maintain support for malaria control efforts, Brown said, not only to help save the lives of the most vulnerable, but also for America’s well-being.

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