Irony is evident in many situations facing Africa, but no situation presents more irony than the fact that Africa’s biggest enemy is the tiny Anopheles mosquito. It is only an infected female anopheles that can transmit malaria, which kills hundreds of millions of people worldwide annually. Ninety percent of those who die from malaria each year are African, and at least one million of them are children.
The vast majority of malaria victims are children under five years of age. The disease often causes cognitive impairment in children, causing permanent brain damage. In older victims, the alternating states of coldness and fever impair people to the extent that they become unable to be productive workers. Thus malaria is not just a symptom of poverty; it is a cause of poverty.
Now there may be hope for stemming the terrible impact of malaria beyond indoor spraying and chemically-treated bed nets. At the recent fifth Multilateral Initiative on Malaria Pan African Conference in Kenya, a great deal of enthusiasm was expressed for a malaria vaccine drug developed by GlaxoSmithKline – RTS,S. The drug is in its final stage of testing in seven African countries: Burkina Faso, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. This is the world’s largest-ever trial of a malaria vaccine. According to the Nigerian publication Leadership, the research centers were selected “for their track record of world-class clinical research, strong community relations and commitment to meeting the highest international ethical, medical clinical and regulatory standards.
Participants in the Kenya malaria conference also discussed the potential of traditional African herbal medicines to prevent malarial devastation in Africa. Traditional medicine is seen as an alternative to drugs produced by pharmaceutical companies. It is pointed out that many Africans can’t afford such medicine, which is often not available to rural populations at any price. Traditional medicines are used elsewhere quite effectively. B.N. Prakash, a researcher at the Foundation for the Revitalization of Local Health in Bangalore, India, told the conference that medicinal plants have been used with great success in his country, demonstrating “a 5-10 times reduction in malaria-related deaths among communities who use traditional medicinal plants like guduchi (a plant found in India).”
Some of the conference participants raised caution on two fronts. First, traditional medicines are often not well tested to prove their effectiveness, and some traditional healers use medicines without standardizing doses or concentrations. Second, the disintegration of health care systems in African countries means there is no guarantee that drugs will be handled professionally so that improper storage can reduce the effectiveness of any drug.
Hopefully, these problems can be addressed because the enemy is trying to overcome current preventative methods. According to researchers at the malaria conference, Anopheles mosquitoes are changing their habits by feeding earlier in the evening before people go to bed under treated nets. Furthermore, many mosquitoes are showing signs of developing resistance to the insecticides used in treat nets, especially chemicals derived from pyrethrum. Consequently, the quicker the vaccine can be certified and distribution methods perfected the better. Millions of lives depend on the speed and effectiveness of this effort.