Mosquito nets have been instrumental in cutting cases of malaria

A person dies from malaria every minute. Seven people are infected with this debilitating disease every second. These are the figures that World Malaria Day – which is today – is seeking to highlight.

World Malaria Day has been going since 2007. It was established by the World Health Assembly, part of the World Health Organization, to get people to sit up and take note of this often underreported disease. While the headline figures look bad, great steps have already been made in tackling the disease.

The good news is that the global mortality rate for malaria has fallen by 25% since 2000. At the same time, 50 out of the 99 countries where malaria is endemic are set to meet targets to cut infection rates by three-quarters by 2015. However, new problems have emerged. As the UN and projects like the Medicines for Malaria Venture, with the help of philanthropic organisations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have stepped up the fight against the disease, criminals have taken advantage. It’s now estimated that a third of malaria drugs sold around the world are counterfeit.

Fortunately, scientists are coming up with ways of identifying the fakes. Announced to coincide with World Malaria Day, the US Food and Drug Administration is planning to start trials on a handheld testing device that can tell the bogus medicines from the real thing.

Other recent good news includes work to drive down the cost of the drug artemisinin, the most effective treatment against the deadliest form of malaria. Scientists have just published work in Nature where they were able to engineer yeast to produce 10 times more of the chemical precursor to artemisinin – artemisinic acid – than before. This can then be chemically converted into the drug.

French drug giant Sanofi has gone one better, scaling up artemisinin production using the same engineered yeast. Using some photochemical wizardry Sanofi hopes to be synthesising enough of the drug to meet a third of world demand by next year.

While artemisinin is still on the frontline in the fight against malaria, the counterfeiters have been taking their toll in another way. Often, criminals place a small amount of the drug in fake antimalarial drugs to try fool tests meant to pick them up. Unfortunately, when these drugs reach malaria patients they give the malarial parasites the opportunity to develop resistance to artemisinin as there’s not enough of it to kill them. Happily, researchers are working hard to develop new drugs all the time and there are some exciting new compounds in the pipeline. One group of researchers has resurrected an old drug and appear to have overcome some of its toxicity problems. This molecule can target all stages of the malarial parasites’ lifecycle, which is virtually unheard of, and early tests indicate that the parasite cannot easily develop resistance to the drug. Brilliant news!

 Patrick Walter

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