Saturday, 11 April 2009

Malaria - new hope against old enemy?

A new anti-malaria drug is being developed by researchers in the United States. When mosquitoes feed on human blood, they produce a substance called haem that can poison them. The new medicine prevents them getting rid of the haem, and it can also enhance the effectiveness of traditional anti-malaria drugs like chloroquine and quinine, to which mosquitoes have been developing resistance. It could be a decade, though, before the treatment comes into general use.

Malaria has probably been around much longer than human beings. The parasite that causes it goes back perhaps 30 million years. The disease was described by Hippocrates in ancient Greece 400 years before Christ, and it may have killed Alexander the Great.

Its name comes from the Medieval Italian for “bad air”, and some historians believe that recurrent epidemics reduced the birth rate in Italy at the time of the Roman Empire, making it more dependent on “barbarian” auxiliaries to defend its frontiers, and eventually leading to its decline and fall. On the other hand, fear of the disease may have halted Attila the Hun in 452 when he seemed on the point of sacking Rome.

It was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that a British army medical officer, Major Ronald Ross, proved the disease was spread by mosquitoes, and today malaria still kills nearly 900,000 people every year – mostly young children in sub-Saharan Africa.

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