Malaria is the seventh deadliest illness in the developing world, infecting more than 200 million people a year and causing over 600,000 deaths in 2012. The good news is that these numbers are at an all-time low, thanks to eradication campaigns, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Now, as what may be the final nail in malaria’s coffin, new research is helping fuel advances in the fight against malaria, with researchers taking important steps on the road to a vaccine.
The primary tools of malaria control currently target the mosquitoes that spread the disease. When malaria was nearly eliminated in the United States in the early 20th century, it was accomplished with bed nets treated with insecticides and the digging of drainage ditches—more than 30,00 miles of them—to get rid of standing water where mosquitoes congregate. The disease can be treated, but no vaccine has yet been found to be effective against all forms of the parasite that causes the disease.
According to a study at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, combining vaccines effective against different strains of the malaria parasite—members of the same species with slight genetic differences that are enough to make them different from a medical perspective—makes a sort of supervaccine that works against strains other than the ones associated with the individual vaccines involved.
In tests, a combination of just four vaccine strains was effective against 26 strains of parasite. Although malaria does not spread directly between humans, a combination of human-to-mosquito and mosquito-to-human transmission mean it can spread easily in areas with high populations of humans and mosquitoes. Broad spectrum vaccination would stop mosquito-to-human transmission, and eventually stop human-to-mosquito transmission as well, eliminating the disease.
This doesn’t mean mosquito netting, insecticide, and drainage ditches don’t continue to have a role in anti-malaria efforts. International humanitarian organizations are deeply involved in helping communities in poor tropical regions get the resources and develop the infrastructure to lessen the scourge of malaria even in the absence of a vaccine. Deaths due to malaria among children in these areas were cut in half between 2000 and 2012.