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17 September 2014
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Defeating the Curse

How science is tackling malaria

Programme transcript

This is the story of an epic battle between science and nature. It's a battle to destroy a disease that is one of the biggest killers on the planet: malaria. The stakes could not be higher; every day 3,000 people, mainly children, die. For 100 years science has fought this killer disease. And lost. Every time scientists thought they were winning, the disease has returned stronger and more deadly.

In the 1950s and 60s scientists attempted to wipe out malaria by using DDT to kill the mosquito that transmitted it. But the mosquito fought back, by evolving resistance to DDT. Scientists also developed drugs to attack the parasite that causes the disease, but these too lost their effectiveness when the parasite evolved resistance to them. By the 1980s the battle against malaria seemed to have been lost.

But now science is fighting back. Its weapons fall in to two main camps; drugs and vaccines. The story begins at the height of the cold war when the Chinese set to work to try to find a cure for malaria. Their search was inspired by the teachings of Chairman Mao. Mao distrusted western medicine and instructed his scientists to look to Chinese history for inspiration. As a result, a team of Chinese scientists tested more than 200 herbs that had traditionally been used against malaria fevers.

During that search they came across a 2000-year-old recipe for a tea – Quing Hau Su – that claimed to cure malaria. It seemed to work. The scientists then proceeded to refine the tea and extracted the active ingredient – now known as artemisinin. Artemisinin has proven to be the most effective anti-malarial drug ever produced. Because of bitter cold war rivalries and secrecy, however, it has taken more than 30 years to come into wide use.

But the drug has become a victim of its own success. As the world has woken up to its potent properties, demand for it has sky-rocketed. Consequently it has become impossible to produce enough to meet demand. So labs across the world have been desperately searching for an artificial, synthetic version of the drug that can be produced in vast quantities at a fraction of the cost of the natural version. This year trials of a promising new candidate began in Thailand.

The other way science is hoping to attack malaria in the future is with a vaccine. An effective vaccine would help infants - who make up the vast majority of fatalities from this disease – survive their first few years of life. Scientists have been attempting to create a vaccine for the last half century, but due to the complexity of the parasite that causes the disease all these attempts have ended in failure.

Last year, however, a trial of an experimental vaccine in Mozambique showed the first hints that an effective vaccine may one day be possible. The trial showed a 30% reduction in the number of malaria cases and a 58% reduction in incidence of severe, life-threatening disease over a period of six months. Whilst this does fall short of what most health professionals would expect, it does show that a malaria vaccine is now a possibility.

As a result of a concerted effort by scientists and doctors across the world new drugs and promising vaccines are being developed. Science has at last delivered new weapons in the fight against malaria; it's up to us to find a way to use them.

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 Elsewhere on

Health: Malaria
30,000 visitors to tropical countries are infected every year.

News: Medical Notes: Malaria
Malaria kills over a million people a year and is second only to tuberculosis in its impact on world health.

Health: Jabs and Tablets
If you're going to visit, travel through or even stop over in a malarial country, preventative measures are essential.

 Elsewhere on the web

Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV)
A nonprofit organization created to discover, develop and deliver new, affordable antimalarial drugs.

Malaria Vaccine Initiative
Vaccine development program.

The Wellcome Trust: Malaria
The range of research funded by the Wellcome Trust that aims to combat malaria.

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