For years malaria has been an epidemic that has ravaged many regions around the world. Infections are still so common, the phrase ‘I feel like I have malaria’ easily gives one an idea of the symptoms a person is experiencing without further explanation. Notably, tremendous steps have been made towards a malaria-free society, mainly because of numerous efforts that have been made in Kenya to curb the colossal number of infections that burden certain geographic areas. From applying insect repellent, sleeping under a treated mosquito net, and antimalarial tablets for travelers, the number of malaria infections has dropped from 11% to 8% countywide between 2010 and 2015; additionally, there has been a 29% drop in child mortality which is attributed to the anti-malaria work that was in progress at the same time.
One may wonder if a malaria-free society is actually possible, here are some of the ways humans and science have worked together to curb its spread.
Naturally acquired immunity to falciparum malaria- caused by the most severe and common disease-causing protozoa Plasmodium falciparum- has been seen in both adults and children who have had multiple previous infections. There is no clear mechanism of how this protection came to be but is said to offer between 90-100% protection in exposed adults and children. Is this our solution? Definitely not! In any given year about 500 million people are infected with malaria and 1-2 million people succumb to the illness. Notwithstanding the increasing levels of resistance, malaria is showing towards routine treatment. Prevention still remains better than cure.
Sickle cell disease is a well-researched genetic mutation where red blood cells have an abnormal or ‘sickled’ shape and thus are unable to effectively carry oxygen around the body. Sickle cell trait refers to people who are carriers of the defect but it does not present as sickle cell disease and many have normal red blood cells. It has been found that the sickle cell trait offers 60% protection against malaria mortality between 2-16 months of life. As only a small fraction of people in malaria-endemic areas have this genetic mutation, this not effective for the majority of the population.
Antimalarial tablets offer 90% protection from malaria infection and have been the most effective measure to date. A malaria vaccine seems to be on the horizon for malaria-endemic areas in Kenya and other parts of Africa. However, with a decrease in funding for malaria research, certain delays may be experienced. Nevertheless, we should not tire in making efforts– sleeping under a net, taking antimalarial tablets before traveling, avoiding self-diagnosing and treatment, and instead get a blood test and medical treatment promptly to curb malaria infections. In this way, we protect ourselves and our loved ones.