Malaria Vaccine Trial Brings Hope

On Tuesday ITV news announced that a malaria vaccine, developed by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), and trialled in Ghana, has almost halved the number of cases of malaria in children and could be for sale in Africa within a year.

According to ITV, GSK said it is planning to release the drug to market at the reduced price of $5 per vaccine. Although this cost is still expensive for millions across the Sub-Saharan region, it is relatively cheap and a major breakthrough in the fight against this costly, deadly disease.

The trial is one of the biggest ever undertaken and the results show that the vaccine could save millions of lives each year. 15,000 people took part in it, across seven African countries, including Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique.

Professor Tsiri Agbenyega told Lawrence McGinty, from ITV news that they ‘have reached a “eureka moment” in the development of just such a vaccine – the first in the world against a parasite.’ His hospital in Agogo is one of 11 centres where trials of the malaria vaccine are being carried out.

Although the full results are not yet available, the results are encouraging at this half-way point, as the vaccine nearly halves the number of episodes of malaria in children aged between 17 months and 5 years. For every 1,000 children vaccinated, 941 cases of clinical malaria were prevented over 18 months of follow-up.

 You can read more about it on ITV news here.

Latest research on the long-term effects of malaria

Chris Moxon, clinical lecturer at Liverpool University, has just published a study in the Journal of Infectious Diseases that shows there may be a link between repeated bouts of malaria in children and a greater likelihood of them becoming ill later in life with other illnesses like cardiovascular disease (read more in this LSTM article).

This is because their blood vessels become inflamed when they have malaria, and they may remain inflamed throughout their life making them leaky and susceptible to blocking with fat. He suggests the possibility of treating the children with statins in the future to help reduce the inflammation, and prevent further disease.

I was particularly interested in this study which was carried out on 190 children in Blantyre, Malawi, because I used to live there, and my brother also caught malaria while we were there.


DFID investment to save millions of lives from malaria and other diseases

Today the UK Government announced an investment into pioneering partnerships to save millions of lives from the world’s most deadly but preventable diseases including malaria.

The Department for International Development (DFID) is investing £138 million over the next five years into nine public-private partnerships to support the development of new drugs, vaccines, insecticides and diagnostic tools to prevent, diagnose and treat malaria, HIV, TB, diarrhoea and other neglected tropical diseases.

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You can read more about it in a DFID press release here and in Malaria No More’s policy section here. I think it’s really important to continue to develop new technologies to fight these deadly but avoidable diseases. You can support my fundraising for Malaria No More at my Just Giving page here.

Malaria nets are not always effective

In the Lancet medical journal a couple of weeks ago, scientists said that mosquito nets are not effective for people who work or sleep outside at night, in countries where malaria incidents are at a low level. I agree with their findings as, when I was living in Malawi, we had security guards who worked outside our house all night. While we were asleep under our mosquito nets, they were walking around the garden being bitten by mosquitoes, and at risk from malaria.  Many men in the cities in Malawi work as night guards for families and businesses, and they can’t be protected like most people. It is a fact that malaria-carrying mosquitoes are most likely to bite people between 10pm and 5am in the night, so if you sleep under a net your chances of catching malaria are greatly reduced.

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This BBC news article suggests other ways people could be protected is to treat hammocks or clothing with repellants. I think it is really important to research new ways of preventing malaria, like finding a vaccine or genetically changing mosquitoes, if malaria is ever going to be totally eradicated. Until then, we must make sure governments give the Global Fund enough money to keep providing treated bed nets and quick diagnosis tests for all the vulnerable people living in malarial countries.

Climate change could bring malaria to Britain

In this Guardian article, leading health experts are predicting that there is a real risk that malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases could soon be found in the UK. 

Salt marshes used to protect coastal regions and increased flooding, due to global warming, means that the UK is becoming an attractive habitat for mosquitoes.

Health experts, at the annual public health conference of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health this week, are urging governments to “act now before it is too late”, as a growing body of evidence proves that what were once thought of as tropical diseases are being found ever closer to the UK. In 2011, Greece reported a case of malaria.  

Perhaps the threat of malaria in their own back garden will make politicians and scientists put more emphasis on finding a vaccine for this disease which is already killing 1,500 children every day…

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New synthetic anti-malarial could slow down resistance

According to this New Scientist article, an American company has recently discovered a way to manufacture artemisinin, the world’s most effective anti-malarial drug. In the past, artemisinic acid has always been extracted from the specially grown wormwood plant, and then made into the drug. Now, Amyris, a biotech company, can get yeast to pump out the acid, in just 3 weeks, instead of 18 months, which could make it much cheaper to produce.

However, the malaria parasite is becoming resistant to artemisinin, so this new development could help, if it is combined with other drugs. Unfortunately, some companies are still producing pure artemisinin and 25 countries still allow it to be used, which means that resistance to it is growing.

Hopefully, this new synthetic production of the drug, will make it cheaper to produce, and will out-price the pure artemisinin, so the rate of resistance slows down.

Resistance to artemisinin is mostly in Asia, but there are fears that it could spread to Africa where 90% of malaria deaths occur. It’s also been discovered that parasites in Cambodia have greater genetic resistance to the drug compared with resistant parasites in other parts of the world. Nicholas White of Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand, says that ‘…the most important tool needed to contain resistance is finding a genetic marker for it.’

Let’s hope that research into anti-malarial drugs continues to produce effective results, and that a genetic marker can be identified to combat the resistance of malarial parasites to the drugs. In the meantime, the use of treated bed nets is a really cheap and effective way of reducing the risk of people being bitten, especially children.

This Thursday is World Malaria Day. If you want to help to fight malaria, please click on my Just Giving page here, where a donation of £5 will buy and deliver a treated bed net for a family in Africa. Thanks!

Roll Back Malaria "World

Revision & DNA photocopying

This holiday I’m busy revising, which is why I’ve not been posting so much on my blog. However, I thought this Daily Mail article was quite interesting.

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It is about a 17 year old boy, Fred Turner, studying for his A levels like me, who has made his own DNA photocopying machine in his bedroom. He read, on the internet, about an American who had made a similar one, and decided to try it himself to see whether his ginger-haired brother had a mutated gene causing red hair. He used an old video player to make a polymerase chain reaction machine, which he used to amplify the DNA strands he took from his brother’s cheek cells. Now he’s won an engineering prize and a place at Oxford to read biochemistry. I guess there’s some tough competition out there! Now, I’d better get on with my revision….

How tweeting can stop the spread of flu

I read a really fascinating article the other day, about how activity on Twitter, Google and social media sites can now be used to discover information about hospitals, or flu epidemics very quickly, and help to save lives.

It’s amazing that lots of tweets about the smell of ‘urine’ might be able to alert people to failing hospitals way before anyone dies from malpractice. In the same way tweets that talk about staff like ‘angels’ will be able to point people to good hospitals.

Felix Greaves is a young doctor who has developed a computer programme which searches social media posts to spot good and bad hospitals, just by recognising common key words. Unfortunately, when ‘cup of tea’ is mentioned, the computer can’t tell whether the situation is good or bad as the words are used in both positive and negative ways! His study of “sentiment analysis”, was published in the February issue of the online journal BMJ Quality and Safety, and is an example of the way that social media is becoming more important in medicine.

Another way this programme can be used, is to recognise when flu outbreaks are occurring as they unfold. People who feel unwell often type ‘flu remedy’ into a search engine, so epidemics can be discovered sooner than if doctors had to report them. This way public health crises can be predicted and hopefully avoided. 

Max Pemberton (‘Trust me, I’m a junior doctor’) wrote in his blog a couple of days ago that perhaps the government should recruit celebrities to tweet health tips after 1D’s Harry Styles has been educating his thousands of Twitter followers about Greek philosophy. But I’m not sure if that’s such a good idea!