It has been estimated that half of all people who have ever lived have been killed by malaria. Although the statistic seems unfathomable, it may not be far off. Indeed, the parasite that causes malaria is theorized to have been around since the time of dinosaurs. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) 2017 Malaria Report, malaria affected 216 million people in 2016 alone, and killed an estimated 445,000. Malaria is an endemic in 106 countries around the world, mostly within Africa, and nearly half of the world’s population today is at risk. To put these numbers into perspective, in Zambia approximately 20% of babies do not live past their fifth birthday because of malaria. Across Africa, one child dies every 30 seconds from this disease.
“…in Zambia approximately 20% of babies to not live past their fifth birthday because of malaria.”
In Ireland, mosquitos are mostly seen as annoying bugs that ruin patio drinks and hiking trips. But in most parts of the world, they are deadly creatures that put everyone’s life at risk with a simple prick.
Malaria is caused by a small parasite that lives in a certain type of female mosquito, Anopheles, which mainly lives in warm, tropical climates. The parasite spends most of its life cycle in the mosquito until the mosquito feeds and bites a human, transmitting the parasite. The parasite then travels to the bloodstream where it infects blood cells and finishes its life cycle. This causes the red blood cells to burst and release many other parasites, infecting other blood cells, and so the cycle continues. Malaria makes people severely sick, causing high fevers, headaches, muscle pains, shaking chills and other flu like symptoms. If left untreated, this disease can lead to comas, convulsions, and ultimately death.
“Malaria has been defined as a disease of poverty; there is a lack of sustainable and predictable funding to eliminate the disease in high-risk zones…”
Malaria has been defined as a disease of poverty; there is a lack of sustainable and predictable funding to eliminate the disease in high-risk zones, which also makes it difficult to manage. This is in part due to the fact that the majority of places where malaria is endemic are also at risk of conflict and political unrest. Unexpected weather such as excessive rains, flooding and earthquakes can also disrupt the delivery and implementation of preventative measures.
While there are preventative and curative treatments, they can have unpleasant and sometimes dangerous side effects, and often individuals cannot use them for extended periods of time. For example, some effective preventative medications are both expensive and can lead to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, blurred vision, and vivid nightmares. Furthermore, the parasites are becoming resistant to antimalarial medicines, and mosquitos are becoming resistant to insecticides, threatening the control and elimination of malaria across the world.
Although this presents a grim state of affairs, all hope is not lost. Advances have been made which have reduced the number of cases by 18% in the past year alone. Foundations like the WHO and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are working hard to decrease the prevalence of malaria, with the goal being to one day eradicate it entirely.
These organizations fund several preventative measures. For example, between 2014 and 2016, 582 million insecticide-treated mosquito nets were delivered globally, decreasing the incidence of malaria around the world. Malaria pills are provided intermittently to pregnant women so they can prevent the infection in this vulnerable population. Rapid-response malaria diagnostic tests have also been delivered in large quantities, to help detect malaria before its symptoms become severe. As with most diseases, early detection is best.
“…between 2014 and 2016, 582 million insecticide-treated mosquito nets were delivered globally”
The bigger picture solution seems easy: why not just get rid of mosquitos instead of the parasite that causes the malaria? There are several reasons why this is easier said than done. First, mosquitos have an important role in the globe’s ecosystem – they are a necessary food source for other insects, fish and birds. Without them, we would see the population numbers of those species fall. Second, even when we try to kill the mosquitos with widespread insecticide use, they only become resistant, rendering this practice useless.
However, new and exciting research in genetic modification of mosquitoes is underway. “Mosquito factories” could potentially eradicate the strain of mosquitos that carry malaria without causing the death of a species as a whole. Researchers have begun genetically modifying mosquitoes in such a way that they are unable to carry diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and the zika virus. These mosquitoes would be mass-produced in these factories, and could outnumber and competitively eliminate the disease-carrying mosquitoes.
To make it even more worthwhile, genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes mating with other GM mosquitos will pass on the gene that makes them resistant to infection by the parasite or virus. At the same time, GM mosquitoes mating with non-GM ones will have infertile offspring, essentially eliminating the spread of the disease through this mosquito vector. These genetically modified mosquitoes could be the future of eradicating malaria across the world.