Ending an Epidemic: Addressing Evolving Strain of Malaria

Strain of malaria
One specific strain of malaria, a mosquito-borne disease common to tropical and sub-tropical areas, has been the focus of an interesting scientific discovery recently.

Generally, malaria is curable if diagnosed quickly and treated immediately. Symptoms include fever, chills, sweats, nausea, vomiting and bodily aches and it can be diagnosed through microscopic examination of a patient’s blood. Severe malaria symptoms (which are caused by the Plasmodium falciparum bacteria) can include respiratory distress, severe anemia and coma.

Plasmodium falciparum is the most commonly studied because it is the strain associated with the highest mortality rate.

However, Professor Dominic Kwiatkowski from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics has led an international team of researchers to study Plasmodium vivax–a strain of malaria that can lie dormant in a host’s liver for years before emerging–resulting in a malaria relapse.

Malaria relapses can occur months or even years after the initial infection, making P. vivax more dangerous than its counterpart, P. falciparum.

Professor Kwiatkowski’s team discovered that P. vivax has continued evolving to avoid and combat anti-malarial drugs that work to kill P. falciparum. This is despite both diseases being malarial strains and therefore related, making it more likely that the drugs that kill P. falciparum bacteria should kill P. vivax bacteria.

The danger in P. vivax developing a resistance to anti-P. falciparum drugs is that the parasite entrenches drug resistance in its population, thereby making the P. vivax strain harder to eliminate from human and mosquito populations.

This strain of malaria is already difficult to detect and eliminate in human blood because it can hide in the liver for years. Its resistance to the most common anti-malaria drugs may make it even more difficult to eradicate in the future.

Professor Kwiatkowski remains optimistic, though, citing the advancement of scientific technologies regarding genomic sequencing and analysis as boons to his research into P. vivax and how best to combat it.

Bayley McComb

Photo: Pixabay