Malaria and the 2011 Nobel Prize

Nobel Prize Medicine 2011

This year’s Nobel prize in Medicine was awarded (to Bruce A. Beutler, Jules A. Hoffmann and Ralph M. Steinman) for their outstanding discoveries that built our modern day understanding of the Immune System (both Innate and Acquired Immunity) from works that started since the nineties. The breakthrough in Innate Immunity came from studies that revealed the remarkable similarities between flies and mammals as regards how our body fights off infections. Just so that I don’t lose you even before we get started, Immunity (in medicine) simply means a state of been resistant to a particular disease and it is known to exist in two forms: Innate (Natural) Immunity is that being conferred by a person’s genetic constitution while on the other hand, Acquired Immunity means that arising from a previous exposure either to an infecting organism or from vaccination.

The direct application of their research lies in hopes of helping to find a cure to Inflammatory and Autoimmune Diseases. These diseases arise from the body attacking its own cells by mounting an overactive immune response to normal tissues within the body because it suddenly starts considering them as foreign substances; examples are Rheumatoid Arthritis and Lupus.

For now, I think we may also have a lot to thank them for. This is because without their great work, how would we have known about the possibility of Immunity to MALARIA.

Going by the fact that when malaria first broke out as an epidemic it was thought to be caused by “Bad Air”, hence the name: “Mal + Air”= Malaria; you gotta admit that we have come a pretty long way. Well, how much further is the journey? There have been talks about making 50% progress in creating a malaria vaccine. We might have only just scratched the surface because as far as elimination goes. Current modus operandi however entails the “Roll-Back Malaria” whose key strategies are: Prompt access to treatment, Use of Insecticide-treated mosquito nets (ITNs), Prevention and Control of Malaria in Pregnant Women, and Malaria epidemic and emergency response. For now, the RBM global partners are working towards achieving Zero-Malaria deaths by 2015!

In areas of high malaria prevalence like Nigeria and across the tropics, adults have a high immunity while it is low in children. The implication is that while adults may have a milder illness, malaria tends to be very severe in children making them more prone to complications like Cerebral malaria, Severe Anaemia, etc.  In the same light, blood tests in children reveal a higher load of the parasites compared to adults in the general population. In areas of low malaria transmission, both adults and children alike come down with severe illness.

The reason for this is simple: the immunity develops over time after several repeated infection. This immunity does not prevent an adult from having another malaria illness (certainly, that would be a white lie) but rather, it largely reduces the severity of the disease. That is, while a laboratory blood test may confirm the presence of malaria parasites in your blood, you may only be feeling mild symptoms like headaches, body pains, tiredness, bitter taste in mouth or just loss of appetite (Definitely not so for a child!)

However, this immunity has to be maintained. How? By continually being exposed to the infection (seriously?) No jokes, you at least partially lose this immunity when you travel out of the malaria-laden environment for a long while.

Therefore, the smart thing to do when travelling to the tropics is to take precautions (prophylactic medications) that help boost your immunity.

Just in case you know or have a relative who has been abroad for years and then visits home only to become severely ill after a couple of days, it just might not be those your village witches/wizards, it might just be Malaria.

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