Scientists and researchers have over the years spent sleepless nights trying to out do the Anopheles mosquito that transmits plasmodium that causes the deadly malaria. Each time they begin the triumphant laugh, the mosquito strikes, and wham!! Resistance develops, not only on the treatment drugs, but also in insecticides used in spraying households or the protective bed nets.
Another long road toward lasting solution begins all over again, and the vicious cycle continues…Statistics show that malaria kills about one million people worldwide every year, majority of whom are Africans, and children under the age of five years. The disease predominantly affects rural and poor populations that have little or no access to current prevention and treatment tools.
Its symptoms include fever, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, weight loss and anaemia in severe cases, however pneumonia shows similar symptoms; hence the need for diagnostic test to confirm the presence or otherwise of the disease. But research has shown that a lot of people in endemic countries administer anti-malarials to treat fevers without confirmatory diagnostic tests. The abuse or wrong use of the drugs usually leads to the continuous resistance to mutation of the malaria parasite.
A major area of concern to scientists is that while more effective malaria treatments and prevention methods exist today than ever before, majority of the most vulnerable do not have access to them. They have observed that accessibility to non-effective, cheaper drugs such as Choloquine and fansidar also contribute to the mutation of the parasite though many hospitals and health centres in Africa continue dispensing them
Hope for an effective treatment, prevention and eventual eradication of the disease has not faded as the scientists revealed at a week long Multi- Initiative on Malaria (MIM) Pan-African Malaria conference in Nairobi, Kenya, in November last year at the magnificent Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC).
The scientists remain optimistic in the battle against malaria and believe that some day, maybe sooner than later, malaria will be completely eradicated using new tools, some of which are already operational while others are in the offing.
Dr. Robert Newman, WHO's Director of Global Malaria Programme, said eradication is possible through interventions such as sustained political and financial commitment, not only from donors but also from the purses of endemic countries. He said the new tools include bringing together researchers and programmes from all over the world, similar to the Nairobi gathering to create an environment where countries will learn from each other, create surveillance systems and develop new drugs.
Artemisinin-based Combination Therapies (ACTs) are currently the most effective form of treatment against malaria. Some countries worldwide have adopted ACTs as first line drug treatment. Early this year signs of resistance were discovered along the Thai Cambodian raising fears by researchers that if not managed it could spread and wreck havoc.
There are some concerns about the urgent need to develop the next generation of therapy without waiting until the ACTs fail. Dr. Christian Loucq, Director of the Malaria Vaccine Initiative (MVI) said that a malaria vaccine would add a powerful, cost-effective way to save lives and help eliminate the disease.
A promising malaria vaccine, RTS,S is now in its third phase and being tried in 11 sites within seven African countries. Malawi has the largest trials site in Africa, the other countries are Kenya, Ghana, Gabon, Burkina Faso, Tanzania and Mozambique.
Long Lasting Insecticide Treated Net (LLIN) is another intervention being explored in combating malaria. Malaria was eliminated in most western countries more than 50 years ago and it is against this background that Dr. Fred Binka of Indepth Network, an international health organisation, reassures affected countries that eradication is absolutely possible, so long as all available tools are marshalled.
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Director of Infectious Diseases Development, Dr. Regina Rabinovich, said the future was certain as evidenced by an increase in resources to fight the disease. “We can learn from past challenges. Drugs now are cheaper and more accessible, unlike then and it is time we moved from treatment to eradication,” she said.
It is estimated that malaria costs Africa more than US$12 billion every year in lost Gross Domestic Product (GDP) due to the heavy toll it inflicts on families in rural areas.
How soon would Africa laugh last and laugh longest?