Malaria: Taking the Sting Out

WHEN I was about ten years old, I came down with malaria. The mere memory of it still makes my knees jiggle, and I can smell the acrid chloroquine pills which left a bitter after-taste that stayed with me for days and made my urine yellowy and stinky of medication.

I remember feeling sweaty and cold at the same time that I was not sure whether to cover myself with a blanket or jump in a tub full of ice-cold water. My appetite for food was next to nothing; no matter how much my mother tried to entice me to eat, I would simply throw up.

As an African child, I was very lucky to have survived though the memory of my illness still sends shockwaves up my spine. Unfortunately, the chloroquine pills that saved my life are not considered as effective across Africa anymore because the malaria parasite has become resistant. With each dose, the little pest has evolved, so to speak.

Malaria is a big killer on the continent. Of the 30 countries ranked as high-burden malaria countries in the world by WHO, 18 are in Africa. 

Not so many children are lucky to get past the age of five because they succumb to malaria. In Africa, where 80% of malaria cases are treated at home, the disease kills one child in twenty before the age of five

According to WHO, malaria kills around 3,000 children a day in Africa. Meaning in 60 second it will take you to read this small paragraph, two children will be dead. In Africa, malaria continues to be the leading cause of child mortality.  

Malaria is also a leading cause of maternal mortality. Pregnant women have an increased risk of disease and death, as well as adverse impacts for their developing babies- including low birth weight, growth retardation, still births and death.

And that is why news that a new malaria vaccine is being developed is a welcome development. For so long, control of malaria has been neglected and under-funded.

“The PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative (MVI) — which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — on Friday, Jan. 15, announced a collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Sabin Vaccine Institute to create a whole new kind of malaria vaccine. Called a transmission-blocking vaccine (TBV), it is aimed not at protecting individuals from the disease but at preventing mosquitoes that carry it from spreading it,” reported the Time Magazine.

Given that most public health systems in Africa already face severe strain, there is very little to no investment in research into new methods of fighting malaria. According to the Malaria Foundation International, basic health services in Africa have been characterized by declining levels of funding, low staff morale and inadequate drug supplies, have been unable to address the challenges of effective diagnosis and prompt treatment. To make matters worse, pharmaceutical companies have spent relatively little on research into new medicenes.

Yet, the need for an effective vaccinnation or medication is beyond doubt, and it is only with better investment in this area that we can take the sting out of malaria. As the Time Magazine succinctly states: while initiatives to provide insecticide-treated bed nets and other control measures have cut malaria rates in half in some countries, the disease is adapting, and insecticide-resistant and treatment-resistant strains are increasingly problematic.

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