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Scientists advance efforts to end malaria in Africa

By Chukwuma Muanya, Assistant Editor
25 May 2017   |   4:44 am
Scientists and stakeholders in the efforts to end malaria have recorded fresh breakthroughs.

PREGNANT WOMEN AND CHILDREN UNDER-FIVE YEARS…MOST VULNERABLE… Targeted by efforts led by Reckitt Benckiser (RB) Nigeria, makers of Mortein insecticide brand, Lagos, Ogun and Abia State governments and the National Malaria Elimination Programme (NMEP) Abuja to end malaria

*Hybrid protein offers protection against ailment, researchers find
*Genetic variants found among some East Africans reduce disease risk
*FCT, Abia, Lagos, Ogun, Mortein, NMEP join forces against illness

Scientists and stakeholders in the efforts to end malaria have recorded fresh breakthroughs.

Dogged genetic detective work has led scientists to a hybrid red blood cell protein that offers some protection against malaria.

Reporting online May 18 in Science, researchers describe a genetic variant that apparently is responsible for the fusion of two proteins that protrude from the membranes of red blood cells. In its hybrid form, the protein somehow makes it more difficult for the malaria parasite to invade the blood cells.

Successful invasion by the parasite can cause flulike illness, and in severe cases, death.

Also, worried that despite expanded coverage of World Health Organisation (WHO)-recommended prevention measures, millions of people in Nigeria still lack access to core tools such as insecticide-treated nets, indoor spraying with insecticides and preventive therapies, Reckitt Benckiser (RB) Nigeria, makers of Mortein insecticide brand, has renewed onslaught to end malaria.

With theme, “One Act Against Malaria,” Mortein has joined forces with the Lagos, Ogun and Abia State governments and the National Malaria Elimination Programme (NMEP) Abuja, to upscale action for the elimination of malaria in Nigeria through community engagement, continued investment and sustained efforts.

According to the WHO, malaria is a leading cause of death in low- and middle-income countries, especially among children and an estimated 429,000 people die every year of the infection and the majority of those deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa.

According to NMEP, pregnant women and children under the age of five are most vulnerable and there are an estimated 100 million malaria cases with over 300,000 deaths per year in Nigeria, mostly among children under the age of five.

To address the issues of lack access to core tools such as insecticide-treated nets, indoor spraying with insecticides and preventive therapies, Mortein organized a community engagement, which saw officials from the States Ministry of Health and Reckitt Benckiser carry out sanitation, free malaria testing and consultation in all the four States – Abuja, Abia, Ogun and Lagos State. They also went round communities to sensitise and educate residents on the immense benefits of maintaining clean environment as one of the most cost effective ways to reduce mosquitoes, which are the major carriers of malaria parasite.

Meanwhile, according to the study published in Science, people carrying the protective genetic variant are 30 to 50 percent less likely to develop severe malaria than those without, the researchers report. The genetic change was found largely in people from Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania, suggesting that it occurred relatively recently in East Africa.

Haematologist and malaria specialist, Dave Roberts of the University of Oxford, who was not involved with the study, said: “Discovering any genetic changes that protect against malaria is of great interest. Understanding such changes may help us understand the pathological pathways by which the parasite causes so much disease.”

Previous research had hinted that genetic changes to a particular stretch of Deoxy ribonucleic Acid (DNA)/genetic material on chromosome four offered some protection against malaria. But the research team, an international collaboration that included researchers and clinicians from across Africa, had to do substantial legwork spanning 10 years to unmask the changes. Databases that gather the genetic instruction books, or genomes, of individuals are biased toward European populations, while African samples are underrepresented. And human genetic diversity is particularly high in sub-Saharan Africa, so genomes with rare genetic changes can be easily missed.

To overcome these hurdles, the researchers analyzed the genomes of more than 12,000 people, sampling widely in Africa. They surveyed 765 individuals from 10 ethnic groups in Gambia, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Tanzania, as well as more than 2,000 genomes from the 1000 Genomes Project, a public catalog of genetic data. The team also examined genomes of nearly 10,000 people from Gambia, Kenya and Malawi, about half of whom had been hospitalized with severe malaria.

The team discovered that the stretch of DNA in question has undergone major changes; chunks of genes have been deleted, other chunks duplicated or even triplicated. One result stood out in the DNA of the people who were less at risk for malaria: Two genes that provide instructions for two proteins called glycophorin A and glycophorin B were snipped, fused together and duplicated. These proteins are known red blood cell proteins that the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum can use to gain access to the cells.

This genetic mash-up seems to lead to a protein mash-up: The arm sticking inside the red blood cell is made up of protein A, while the arm sticking out of the cell is made up of protein B. This hybrid protein turns out to have been first described in 1984. Called the Dantu antigen, it’s found on red blood cells of only a small percentage of people outside of Africa and is part of a rare blood group called MNS.

Meanwhile, General Manager, RB West Africa, Mr. Rahul Murgai, said the community engagement and collaborations are part of numerous consumer engagement activities by the company to stem the prevalence of malaria scourge in Nigeria and Africa as a whole. He said the partnership with the States and Federal Government, which has been on-going for years, also demonstrates the company’s commitment to the anti-malaria fight in the country towards a clean and heathy Nigeria.

He said, “At RB, our global vision is to have a world where people are healthier and live better. In achieving this, we will continue to make a difference by giving people innovative solutions for healthier lives and happier homes. We know that regular combined interventions of Long Lasting Insecticide Nets (LLINs), Larviciding and insecticide use like Mortein is the solution to achieving a Malaria-free Nigeria. Therefore to protect our children and ourselves from getting sick, the first thing to do is to educate ourselves about prevention.”

Marketing Director, RB West Africa, Leferink Aliza explained that, through the grassroots community engagement, we educate communities on the importance of hygiene, and how the simple habit of maintaining clean surroundings and drainages can significantly help to reduce malaria.

“Malaria is preventable and we have made it our fight to educate on how to protect the most vulnerable – Pregnant women and children and their families against Malaria. This has also leveraged on the Clean Healthy Naija programme which RB is leading across various platforms especially for preventable diseases.”

Reiterating Mortein’s commitment to eradicating malaria, Marketing Manager Mortein, RB West Africa, Bamigbaiye-Elatuyi Omotola, said: “Mortein has been at the forefront of the fight against Malaria in Nigeria. “In the past few years, Mortein has partnered with the Federal Ministry of Health (FMoH) through the NMEP, Lagos state Ministry of Health (LSMOH) and various state ministries of health to foster education on malaria prevention via TV infomercials, Education at primary healthcare centers and the Mortein Own a Community Project which has been well executed across all Local Government Areas (LGAs) in Lagos State. We intend to take this a step further by having doctors in markets to do free Malaria test and consultation in cities of high prevalence across the country. Additionally, #OneActAgainstMalaria campaign has recently been deployed to bring the message closer by imploring everyone to do one preventive act towards the eradication of Malaria within their immediate environment.”

Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole, in his address at the Abuja event, said this year’s campaign aims at drawing significant attention to the need to totally eradicate the malaria scourge in the country. He commended Mortein for its work and continuous support in the fight against malaria through its collaboration with the government. He therefore pledged the Federal government’s commitment to work with RB/Mortein to ensure total eradication of malaria in the country by imploring everyone to do acts against malaria in their community.

The Commissioners for health in Lagos, Ogun and Abia States also commended Mortein for teaming up with their respective State governments in the fight against malaria.

Meanwhile, a new study has shown that when malaria infects the placenta during pregnancy, baby’s future immunity can be affected. The study suggests that a mother’s cells could directly act as part of her child’s immune system, even after birth.

The new study shows that mothers infected with malaria during pregnancy can pass more of their own cells to their baby and change the infant’s risk of later infection.

According to the WHO, vector control is the main way to prevent and reduce malaria transmission. “If coverage of vector control interventions within a specific area is high enough, then a measure of protection will be conferred across the community.”

WHO recommends protection for all people at risk of malaria with effective malaria vector control. Two forms of vector control – insecticide-treated mosquito nets and indoor residual spraying – are effective in a wide range of circumstances.