All of us, in our DNA, carry a rich record of our past – a fact that can be exploited to study human health and disease.
Despite huge efforts to treat and eradicate the disease, in 2015, 214 million people were infected with malaria. 438,000 died. More than 292,000 of those deaths were African children aged under five. Treatment is complicated by the fact the malaria parasite develops resistance to antimalarial drugs.
Despite huge efforts to treat and eradicate the disease, in 2015, more than 200 million people were infected with malaria. Nearly half a million people died. The current frontline treatment for malaria is a drug called artemisinin but treatment is complicated by the fact that the malaria-causing parasite Plasmodium falciparum is exceptionally good at developing resistance to antimalarial drugs.
Can you tell us a bit about the malaria situation in Sri Lanka and how it has changed?
When I joined the University of Colombo as a Lecturer in 1989, malaria was a major problem with around 400,000 cases per year. But there’s been a drastic reduction since 2000 with no evidence of local transmission in Sri Lanka since 2012. So, according to the World Health Organization criteria, Sri Lanka has fulfilled the requirements to be certified as a malaria-free country.
Malaria is transmitted from one person to another by mosquitoes. In parts of the world where malaria is endemic, targeting mosquitoes remains one of the best hopes for controlling malaria. Mosquitoes can be controlled by bed-nets treated with insecticides and by spraying homes with insecticides.
Resistance to the widely used antimalarial drug artemisinin is spreading in Southeast Asia and is likely to be around the corner for Africa. It could reach us very quickly or it could emerge locally.
We don’t want to be surprised by it and we don’t want to be banging our heads against the wall trying to figure out how to deal with it when it comes. We need to be prepared.
Can you tell us a bit about the Plasmodium Diversity Network Africa? What made you want to get involved?
“Surely there is no malaria here?” This is the typical response of fellow Bangkok residents when I tell them what my research focusses on. Therein lies the malaria paradox: the action gets exciting where the disease is on the verge of being wiped out. So, while hundreds of thousands of African children die of the disease yearly, we focus our attention obsessively on Southeast Asian countries where it is sometimes hard to find enough clinical cases to complete studies.