BBC journalist, James Gallagher, reports that researchers have found a strain of Wolbachia bacteria that can infect mosquitoes and make them resistant to the malaria parasite. Malaria is spread by the insects so it is hoped that giving mosquitoes malaria immunity could reduce human cases. Experts said this was a first, distant prospect for malaria control.
Malaria is a major global disease. The World Health Organization estimates that 220 million people are infected and 660,000 die annually.
Research in Australia has shown that a different strain of the Wolbachia bacterium can prevent the spread of dengue fever by mosquitoes. That research is more advanced and has been shown to work in large trials in the wild. Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the US, said this study was a proof of concept that the same could be done for malaria:
“If you can get it to survive and proliferate in the environment of mosquitoes in malaria-stricken areas, this could conceivably have an important impact on the control of malaria…I think the potential for this is very important. The implementation will be the challenge.”
Commenting on the study, Professor David Conway, of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, cautioned that it was in just one species, Anopheles stephensi, which carries malaria in the Middle East and South Asia. Anopheles gambiae, in Africa, is a bigger problem.
One of the researchers, Dr Zhiyong Xi, told the BBC: “We have done only one strain. If we target Anopheles gambiae we would need to apply the same technique again.” He added that if it could be shown to work then “the Wolbachia tool can complement currently available tools”, such as mosquito nets and medication.
– Maria Caluag