These days, scientists know malaria is spread by mosquitoes. But they
describe ill winds buffeting their attempts to halt the spread of a malady that
kills one million people a year, and more young African children than any other
We need to stress that the situation is bad. The number of deaths are
rising, infections are rising, said Pierre Druilhe, head of the biomedical
unit at France's Pasteur Institute.
Scientists say it could even take more than 10 years before their holy grail --
a fully effective malaria vaccine -- is approved for use.
The next decade will be a very bad decade, said Druilhe by telephone
from Yaounde, Cameroon, where hundreds of malaria scientists gathered for a
conference this week.
While many scientists described solid recent advancements and reason for
cautious optimism, others said the news isn't good for Africa, the continent
hardest hit by the disease.
More children are becoming infected each year with the parasite that is the
leading cause of death for children under five, scientists estimate. And while
it has been all-but eradicated in rich lands, scientists say they're hindered
here by twin hurdles: insecticide resistance in mosquitoes and drug resistance
in the parasite.
Malaria is spread by mosquitoes and causes wracking pain, fever and, if left
untreated, sometimes death.
African poverty means few buyers for even relatively inexpensive
insecticide-treated bed nets, so many companies shy away from producing them,
scientists say. Vaccines and treatment drugs are costly.
Malaria prevention is in trouble, said Brian Greenwood, a world
renowned malaria researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical
Medicine, by telephone from Cameroon.
For Greenwood, the main rub is increased resistance to drugs, particularly the
longtime mainstay, chloroquine, which is relatively cheap to produce in mass
Medical workers are turning to a new drug called artemisinin, derived from a
herb indigenous to Asia.
Drawing on lessons learned treating Africa's other main killer, HIV/Aids, they
are using it in tandem with other drugs. But production is slow and expensive.
It's a plant that takes 18 months to grow. You can't just say that you
need 20-million doses right now, Greenwood said.
Without chloroquine and the insecticide DDT -- which helped eradicate malaria in
the United States and Europe but was ultimately believed by many to cause cancer
and harm the environment -- anti-malaria campaigners say they've lost two
It's pretty straightforward, said Druilhe. We have today far
less means to control malaria than 50 years ago.
As for new insecticides, scientists say there are only pockets of resistance in
the mosquitoes that carry malaria, not a continent-wide problem. Yet.
If you had in one place a high level of resistance to both drugs and
insecticides, it would be a disaster, Greenwood said.
Malaria, with over a half billion infections worldwide, is a major contributor
to African poverty, scientists say, cutting billions from gross domestic product
while weighing on health care systems.
But not all is calamity. Scientists say they've identified a resurgence in
public and political interest in malaria over the past decade, an upsurge they
ascribe to greater media coverage and increased tourist travel in malarial
countries by rich northerners.
Malaria has dropped into the mainstream, Greenwood said.
Plus, scientists are increasingly banding together to study the problem -- as
they did this week in Cameroon -- while some major philanthropists like
Microsoft founder Bill Gates have donated huge amounts of money to the fight
against malaria in recent years.
The future is not favourable, but there is fortunately since a few years a
revival in interest in funding, which is good news, said Druilhe.
But Druilhe said more cash is needed.
There's a need for the developing countries to put some pressure on the
rich countries of the north, he said. - Sapa-AP