Sustain gains, save lives: invest in malaria
Malaria has always fascinated me. One of the oldest diseases known to mankind, it has played an important role in historical turning points, from the fall of the Roman empire to the Vietnam war (where it is said to have killed more people than bullets). Today, its burden continues to hinder the economic development of vast regions of the world. And the parasite has even influenced our evolution, applying selective pressures that have favoured the emergence of groups of people with resistance to it.
Before I worked here, one of the things that attracted to the Wellcome Trust was its long history of funding malaria research, dating back to 1938 and the Wellcome Trust Malaria Research Lab, established in Greece by Henry Foy. Since then the Trust has continuously sustained our support for malaria on a wide range of areas: the biology of the parasites and vector; the pathology of the disease; the search for new vaccines and drugs; improving treatment; understanding disease transmission and epidemiology; health services research; health policy research; disease history and ethics; and most recently, through the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, pathogen genome sequencing.
Our new Malaria Portfolio Review documents some of the key landmarks and influences in malaria research over the past two decades. It highlights some of the fascinating developments and breakthroughs in our understanding of this disease, which have led to some remarkable victories in the fight against malaria in the past few decades.
One would think that these developments are cause for real optimism, yet, when reading this review, I couldn’t help but think that malaria is still responsible for an enormous global disease burden, killing almost 800,000 people each year, the majority of whom are under the age of five. Unfortunately, as we become smarter and learn of the parasite’s weaknesses, so does the parasite, which finds ways to overcome any barriers set and continues to co-evolve with us humans as it has known to do so for centuries. Indeed, just this month, researchers from our Major Overseas Programme in Thailand reported that the most deadly malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, has developed resistance to the frontline drug treatment, artemesinin.
There is now a real threat that progress made in reducing the burden of malaria is reversed due to the weaknesses in current tools, the development of resistance and the lack of new tools. In our current world economic turmoil, the uncertainty of funding for a disease that has no real commercial market will only make matters worse. Now, more than ever it is therefore crucial that the Trust builds on progress made by continuing our commitment to malaria research. This includes accelerating development of new antimalarial drugs, improved vector control tools, and faster more reliable diagnostics tests, complemented with research to improve the delivery and the scale-up of key proven, cost-effective interventions that are still effective in reducing the burden of malaria morbidity and mortality.
Today, I join the rest of the world in commemorating World Malaria Day, which in 2012 judiciously reminds us that we must “sustain gains, save lives: invest in Malaria”.
Marta Tufet is International Activities Adviser at the Wellcome Trust.