That annoying buzz, a small nip, and an irritatingly scratchy welt. Most of us are lucky that a bite from a mosquito is only a source of mild discomfort and not a transmission of a deadly disease. However, many around the world are not so lucky.
Malaria, one such disease transmitted by mosquitos, is a big problem in many poor subtropical countries. In 2013, nearly 200 million people were affected by malaria and about 600,000 people in Africa, Asia, and Central Asia died from the disease, many of them children.
As the World Health Organization (WHO) and nations around the world desperately seek solutions to tackle the disease, they may have their answer in a malaria vaccine: “Mosquirix jab” that has been developed by GlaxoSmithKline. The European Medicines Agency recently approved Mosquirix as the first vaccine ever for malaria.
Attack of the Plasmodium Parasites
Interestingly, mosquitoes are not the cause of malaria; they are merely carriers. Malaria is caused by the “plasmodium” parasite, which attaches itself to a female mosquito (its host). When the infected mosquito sucks on a healthy human’s blood, the Plasmodium enters the bloodstream and infects healthy red blood cells.
Malaria can be very debilitating. In severe cases, it can cause hallucinations, coma or death. More often, malarial victims suffer from chills, shivers, sweating, and fever. Other symptoms include muscle fatigue, joint pain, and anemia (lack of healthy red blood cells).
So why is malaria such a big problem in poor tropical countries? Mosquitoes breed in areas of stagnant water. Since poor nations lack the resources for good sanitation and hygiene practices, they often deal with open sewage, poor drainage, and difficulty of waste disposal. These areas tend to become prime mosquito breeding grounds and lead to higher malaria cases.
Vaccines: Building Immunity
Remember the shots we get at doctor’s offices? These vaccinations are injections of weakened or dead organisms—usually virus or bacteria—that develop immunity in our body against that organism. Because the vaccine is a very weak version of a disease, our bodies can easily fight it by generating antibodies that combat the germs. Most importantly, our bodies will store those antibodies and “remember” how to fight the disease should we encounter it again.
The problem with using vaccines in the case of parasitic diseases such as malaria lies in the nature of the disease. Plasmodium, the malarial parasite, has a complicated life cycle. It constantly mutates and builds resistance to drugs and vaccines. Each alteration requires the body to have generated a different antibody to fight it, that the vaccine may not have produced.
Now, after 17 years of clinical trials, Mosquirix may be that answer to the medical community. And though clinical trials have brought out some issues, the European Medicines Agency ratification is certainly a “green light” for this vaccine. The WHO will determine if it will be ready for large-scale deployment in October. Meanwhile, this is certainly a major breakthrough in the world of medicine.