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War Against Malaria


War Against Malaria

by Kenneth Lyen

We have become inured to the statistics that assault us periodically. Once again we are reminded that any one of the top five infectious diseases will kill more people annually than all the wars combined in the past couple of decades. This week’s Time Magazine focuses on malaria, an infecion which claims 3 million lives each year worldwide. This is comparable to the 3 million lives taken by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) or Aids. The only difference between these two conditions is that malaria is curable, and moreover, treatment has been available since 1934, exactly 70 years ago.

The question is stark and conscience pricking. We have the weapons to fight malaria. We can control the vector, the mosquito. The medicines against malaria are both more effective and far cheaper than those for Aids. So why have we not won the war against malaria? Deadly silence. Everybody knows the answer. Nobody wants to say it.

The answer is that malaria affects the poorer parts of the world: Africa, Latin America, and Asia. If malaria was endemic in the United States or Europe, it would almost certain have been eradicated by now.

Evidence that the war against malaria is actually being lost comes from data showing an increase in the number of people affected, and a concomitant rise in deaths from the infection. So what can we do about it?

Well we can reduce the transmission of the parasite by keeping mosquitoes away. One of the most effective ways is to use dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT). Unfortunately the west has banned it since 1972, because when used indiscriminately in agriculture, it killed many fish, insects and birds. However, the dose of DDT required for controlling the mosquito is very low, and much less need be used, compared to what was used in the past as a pesticide. Furthermore, if confined to indoor use, it does not have any of the deleterious effects.

Secondly, there is a traditional Chinese drug discovered in 168 B.C., called artemisinin, obtained from the sweet wormwood plant. Not only is this drug effective against the malaria parasite, but it is effective against those parasites that have become resistance to many of the standard western antimalarials.

Another strategy is to distribute low-cost insecticide-impregnated mosquito nets. This has shown to be effective not only in keeping the mosquito out, but also in killing them.

In the end, it is a question of political will. If enough critically important people believe in exterminating diseases like malaria, it will be achieved. While waiting for that moment to come, unfortunately many more millions of people are going to die. That’s life!