Kenyan scientists have discovered a highly effective way to kill the malaria parasite and have thus invented a new antimalarial drug. The drug will be piloted for human trials soon.
According to the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), the breakthrough could lead to the development of a new class of antimalarial drugs in less than two years.
In results from trials in Burkina Faso, Ivermectin, a bacteria-derived drug used for parasitic diseases, reduced the rates of transmission of malaria. Ivermectin is used to treat river blindness, scabies, and head lice, amongst others. The drug reportedly made the blood of people repeatedly vaccinated lethal to mosquitoes. The trial also found that Ivermectin can kill Plasmodium falciparum - the malaria parasite species most likely to cause severe malaria and death.
The study is relevant since the antimalarial drug resistance has been an ever-present problem. In an interview with Guardian, Dr Simon Kariuki, head of malaria research at KEMRI, said, “Resistance is always a problem and the parasite always finds a way to get away with it. That is why a new line of treatment is a must. It has to be made available soon."
Malaria kills one child every two minutes, making it one of the world's leading killers. According to the CDC, in 2016, 445,000 people died from malaria, most of them children. Most malaria-related deaths occur in Africa where more than 250,000 children die from the disease every year. Children under 5 are at the greatest risk of developing life-threatening complications.
Children are more at risk of contracting malaria because they haven't developed immunity yet. Another group of people at high risk are pregnant women - their immunity is lowered by pregnancy. Dr Kariuki said KEMRI's research focused mainly on pregnant women and children.
Out of Africa, malaria is a less prominent cause of death. However, it still causes substantial disease and incapacitation, especially in some countries in South America and South Asia. The question remains: why is the malaria burden bigger on Africa?
Malaria is more common in Africa due to several reasons. The first is the climate in Africa. Malaria is a tropical disease, meaning it is prevalent in or unique to tropical or subtropical regions. A large chunk of Africa falls under tropical and subtropical zones. These zones are more habitable to mosquitoes as opposed to colder areas. Also, local weather conditions allow the transmission to occur all year round.
Furthermore, the mosquito species in Africa is the Anopheles gambiae complex. Anopheles gambiae complex is very efficient and has high transmission rates. Moreover, the type of parasite predominantly found in Africa is the aforementioned Plasmodium falciparum that causes severe malaria and death. Lack of resource mobilisation due to economic instability further fuels the malaria epidemic.
Meanwhile, the Kenyan Ministry of Health has warned that malaria cases could increase due to climate change, a warning call echoed by climate and malaria experts. Due to climate change, mosquitoes are surviving and proliferating even more, endangering billions of people even in non-endemic places such as Canada and Europe. Although this is a future threat for Canada and Europe, it is an ever-present and continuous threat for Africa. KEMRI is treating the situation with urgency.
"We need more answers on Ivermectin. We need new malaria drugs as soon as possible as drug resistance is not something to ignore and we have to treat the situation as urgent,” said Kariuki.
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