Containment is an essential element in minimizing the damage caused by malaria once it presents itself in a community. Knowing where the disease originated for a particular outbreak and understanding more about the disease can aid in the containment and future prevention of the disease. Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine recently tackled this issue and have found some answers.

By looking at the DNA from over 700 patients with malaria in 14 countries located in South America, Southeast Asia, Oceania and Africa, the researchers were able to identify a “highly predictive barcode in the genetic sequence of a malaria parasite known as Plasmodium falciparum (P. falciparum.)” This barcode can be used to determine the region of the world where the malaria originated and can also serve as a tracking device for the disease as it moves through the bloodstream.

Taane Clark, who works at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, explains, “Being able to determine the geographic origin of malaria parasites has enormous potential in containing drug-resistance and eliminating malaria.” With a disease as widespread and fatal as malaria, any further understanding that the medical world can gain about its nature can be vital for determining how to address the issue.

Pinpointing the geographic region that was the origin of malaria can be helpful when determining who to test for malaria and assessing whether a particular strain is resistant to drugs, allowing for selective treatment. For example, because malaria can travel across continents when travelers contract the disease away from home, the genetic barcode can help health experts to narrow down the pool of those infected and treat them immediately.

The research needs more work, though, as Central America, the Caribbean, southern Africa and the Indian subcontinent have not been investigated for signs of a similar genetic barcode. Seeing as malaria is especially prevalent in Africa, where 91 percent of deaths in 2010 occurred, information about possible genetic barcodes in other regions could have large statistical impacts.

Improving understanding of malaria can directly decrease rates of global poverty, as healthier populations are more capable of contributing to society and facilitating development than are populations plagued by rampant malaria.

As the researchers further investigate the worldwide applicability of this genetic barcode and as more information about the nature of malaria becomes available, regions all over the world can better contain malaria and recognize drug resistance to make treatments more effective.

– Maggie Wagner

Sources: Vaccine News Daily, New York Times, CDC
Photo: Stream Africa