KAMPALA, Uganda — With every passing minute, a child dies from a mosquito bite. Malaria, a potentially deadly disease caused by the parasites transmitted to people through the bite of an infected mosquito, is the third biggest killer of children globally. Of the estimated 660,000 malaria deaths in 2010, approximately 86 percent were children under five years old.
With the help of a new monthly malaria treatment delivery, however, researchers report that it may be easier to dramatically reduce the risk of this disease and its fatalities in infants and children.
Infants and children are especially at risk for the most severe type of malaria. Cerebral malaria, and its subsequent life-threatening anemia and respiratory issues, puts children at severe risk of death upon contraction of this disease.
Insecticide-treated bed nets have been at the front line of malaria prevention, but healthcare providers could be adding another weapon to their arsenal: a monthly dose of a powerful drug called DP (dihydroartemisinin-piperaquine).
DP is derived from arteminisin, which is extracted from the plant Artemisia annua, or sweet wormwood. Arteminisin and its derivatives are known for their powerful ability to quickly reduce the number Plasmodium parasites in the blood of malaria victims.
Arteminisin-based combination therapies are what the World Health Organization recommends as the first line of defense for treatment of malaria-infected people. But ACTs could prove to be even more powerful if used before malaria attacks.
In a new study in Uganda—where the risk of infection is a year-round concern—an international team of researchers worked with 400 uninfected children to test the efficacy of DP as a method of malaria prevention. What they discovered was that DP reduced the risk of malaria infection by 58 percent, compared to the children that received no treatment.
Researchers continued to administer DP to children for 24 months, at which point they stopped and followed the children closely until they reached three years of age. At three, most young children begin to develop immunity to malaria; lack of built up immunity to the disease is what kills so many infants and children worldwide.
Thus far, reports show that DP is much more effective than other, similar drugs. With DP, malaria parasites have not developed resistance to the drug, despite the regularity with which it is administered.
Malaria is both a preventable and curable disease. However, until recently, healthcare services and programs in developing countries have focused on the cure for the often-fatal disease with ACTs, but only after a victim has already contracted the disease.
The new studies of DP as a preventative tool in the global fight against malaria could prevent hundreds of thousands of annual malaria deaths in children, 90 percent of which occur in Africa. Researchers believe that the monthly malaria treatment regimen is safe and effective. The treatment could substantially benefit other parts of the world where the improvement of malaria control is critical.
– Elizabeth Nutt