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Fighting malaria

October 19, 2011

The World Health Organization declares Armenia as "malaria-free," while a new vaccine shows promise. A Ghanaian malaria expert says results are "remarkable."

a close-up of a mosquito on a human finger
Millions of people are affected by malaria worldwideImage: picture-alliance /dpa

Public health experts announced two major breakthroughs in malaria research and eradication this week. The World Health Organization declared Armenia malaria-free and a new trial in a malaria vaccine had cut infection rates by 50 percent.

The WHO also said global malaria infection rates have dropped by 20 percent over the last decade, adding that there were 225 million cases of malaria and an estimated 781,000 deaths in 2009.

The WHO announced on Monday that malaria had been eliminated in the Caucasus nation.

"I have great pleasure in announcing that Armenia has been certified by WHO as malaria-free," said Dr. Margaret Chan, the head of the WHO, in a speech in Seattle. "This happens only when a country has excellent surveillance and response capacity, able to detect every imported case and ensure that it does not ignite a re-establishment of transmission."

Margaret Chan
Dr. Margaret Chan, the WHO's director, spoke in Seattle this weekImage: AP

She added that significant progress has been made in eradicating malaria from Europe and its periphery.

"The malaria map is shrinking," she said. "In 2009, for the first time, not a single case of falciparum malaria was reported in the European Region, and this trend continues. WHO procedures for certifying a country as malaria-free, abandoned in the 1980s, were reinstated in 2004. Since 2007, Morocco, Turkmenistan, and United Arab Emirates have been certified as malaria-free."

According to the WHO, malaria was prevalent in Armenia until the 1950s, and was thought ot have been eradicated in 1963. The disease resurfaced in the 1990s, but now has been since eliminated due to control intervention, long-lasting insecticidal nets, insecticides, and better diagnostic techniques.

New clinical trial

The public health community has been very encouraged by the first results of a large-scale trial on an advanced malaria vaccine candidate drug, known officially as RTS,S/AS01. The drug was first created in a Belgian lab in 1987 by the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline and entered smaller-scale testing in the United States and Africa in the subsequent years.

Malaria is caused by a parasite carried by mosquitoes. The new vaccine is designed to take effect once the parasite enters the human bloodstream by forcing the body's own immune system to react. Then, the activated immune system prevents the parasite from maturing and reproducing in the body.

GlaxoSmithKline was the company that originally developed this vaccine candidateImage: dpa

The WHO reported that in its preliminary results, it reduced malaria infections by 55 percent when given to children under the age of 17 months. The trial tested over 15,000 infants in seven countries across sub-Saharan Africa, including Burkina Faso, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania.

"This is remarkable when you consider that there has never been a successful vaccine against a human parasite," Tsiri Agbenyega, chair of the RTS,S Clinical Trials Partnership and head of malaria research at Komfo-Anokye Teaching Hospital in Kumasi, Ghana, told the AFP news agency.

The results of the study were published Tuesday in the New England Journal of Medicine and were presented at the Malaria Forum conference in Seattle.

The public health and medical community have embraced these promising results so far.

"It's been a long time coming, and indeed we are still not there yet, but it is becoming increasingly clear that we really do have the first effective vaccine against a parasitic disease in humans," wrote Nicholas White of Thailand's Mahidol University in an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, noting that he expected the drug treatment to be available in "just over three years."

Author: Cyrus Farivar (AFP, Reuters)

Editor: Sean Sinico

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