Anopheles Mosquito

Anopheles Mosquito

I woke up the first day somewhat achy and feverish. I shrugged it off as just another bug that one picks up while living in East Africa. It will pass; I’ll just stay in bed. The next day it was worse, and I vowed to head to the clinic at some point, too exhausted to tackle Kampala traffic, I decided it was better to keep hydrated and simply sleep it off. The third day, I went to reach for my phone and, despite it being just a few feet away, I could not make it off the bed.

Malaria begins with symptoms that mirror the common flu. Most adults are familiar with that feeling, it’s something most of us have worked through, and is fairly easy to shrug off. It’s not until a few days later that malaria shifts tactics and hits like a freight train, incapacitating any ability you might have had to seek treatment. This is when it becomes deadly. For me, it took approximately three days.

In sub-Saharan African nations, Asia and South America, people spend lifetimes in malarial cycles. “I haven’t got it for three years,” a driver in Uganda shared, “so that’s not too bad.”

In developing nations, a cure for malaria is often kept in every well-stocked pharmacy. Coartem, and its 4 tablets per dose, are usually enough to bring people back to feeling human within 48 hours. Self-test strip tests, also widely available, are an easy and reliable way of determining if it is malaria, or some other bug floating around.

However, malaria is one of nature’s more resilient parasites, and has no plans on being tackled by a simple combination of chemicals. Rather, it mutates constantly, creating immunities to commonly prescribed drugs.

The reasons are complex: first, people who don’t have access to malaria tests still often have access to the life saving drugs. So when any flu type symptoms begin to occur, they begin their pills. With so many tropical diseases floating around in many of these areas, it is easy to mistake one illness with another. In fact, in some areas of sub-Saharan Africa, “malaria” has become synonymous with “sick.” Someone with typhus? They have malaria. Someone with cholera? Malaria.

When incorrect drugs are administered, the parasites begin to form resistances, and it is in this gray zone that we uncover an immensely daunting health issue.

The truth is, malaria will probably adapt to whatever drug we throw at it. The only real solid solution these days comes in the form of a vaccine.

While the idea of a malaria vaccine has been scoffed at, there is a vaccine development roadmap available, funded primarily by the WHO, which seeks to eradicate our vulnerability to this parasite.

Launched in 2006, there are currently 20 malaria vaccine trials. The most advanced, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, MVI, and GlaxoKleinSmith Biologicals, is nearly 5-10 years ahead of the other vaccines in clinical trials. RTS,S/AS01, which is currently in Phase 3 of its tests, has shown some promising statistics.

In infants, there was a 55 percent drop in malaria cases and a 47 percent drop in life threatening incidents. While vaccinations given to older children saw a drop in efficacy, it still helped reduce malaria by 30 percent. These numbers aren’t huge, but they are substantial in terms of research. In areas of the world where malaria takes out infants at staggering rates, reducing that possibility by 50 percent matters to their families and communities.

In should also be noted that in later trials, certain groups showed a 77 percent rate of coverage, meaning that tackling and studying other environmental factors at play could contribute significantly to eliminating this deadly disease.

Since this vaccine is already in the Phase 3 trial, it means that it could be ready for distribution by 2015. A number of safety regulations, including long-term use and licensure have to be met by the UN and WHO before it can be distributed widely. However, this would be a monumental step in science.

Vaccines are available for viruses and bacteria, but if this vaccine is approved, it will be the first vaccine against a parasitical infection. It’s an incredibly important scientific step and could change the landscape of malarial regions forever.

By Lizabeth Paulat

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