World Malaria Day 2015

Today is World Malaria Day 2015, which highlights the continued fight against a disease that affects millions of people across the world. In this post, we’ve pulled together some facts and information from sources across the web.

Malaria is caused by parasitic protozoans and transmitted between people through the bites of mosquitos. The parasites belong to the genus Plasmodium, with four species causing malaria in humans: P. falciparum, P. vivax, P. malariae and P. ovale. The vast majority of malaria cases are caused by P. falciparum, which also causes the highest numbers of deaths. In 2013, the WHO estimated that there were 198 million cases of malaria, which resulted in an estimated 584,000 deaths.

The malaria parasites have a cyclical lifecycle that begins with the bite of a mosquito. At this point immature parasites known as sporozoites are injected into the blood; these travel through the bloodstream to the liver where they multiply asexually in liver cells, turning into the next stage of the parasites’ lifecycles, known as merozoites.

These merozoites burst out of the liver cells and re-enter the bloodstream where they go on to invade, reproduce and burst out of red blood cells. Some of these merozoites change again into the sexual forms of the parasite, known as gametocytes. Feeding mosquitos ingest these gametocytes, which reproduce and ultimately form new sporozoites, which travel to the mosquitos’ salivary glands, starting the cycle again.

Symptoms of malaria can vary between species, but they are split into two categories: ‘uncomplicated’, or ‘severe’. Severe malaria is a potentially fatal form of the disease that requires urgent medical attention.

Sadly, large swathes of those affected by malaria are unable to get the treatment they require. The majority of malaria cases are found in low- and middle-income countries, with the WHO estimating that 90% of all malaria deaths occur in Africa.

Malaria is spread by female mosquitos of the genus Anopheles. There are around 30 species of Anopheles mosquito capable of transmitting human malaria. Controlling the mosquito vector is an important weapon in the fight against malaria. Anopheles mosquitos bite at night, so the use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets (ITNs) is an effective way of controlling the disease. The use of ITNs has increased in sub-Saharan Africa over the past 10 years, with 49% of the population having access to one in 2014, compared to 3% in 2004. However, there is a worrying trend towards the mosquitos developing resistance to the insecticides used in the nets, with 53 countries around the world reporting resistance since 2010.

Another option to control the disease is to use drugs. The rediscovery of an ancient Chinese treatment for malaria, derived from the wormwood plant, revolutionised malaria treatment. Known as artemisinin, this compound is now combined with other drugs to form artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs). Sadly, in Southeast Asia, P. falciparum parasites resistant to artemisinin have been detected. The fight against resistance in this part of the world is expertly described in this article in Mosaic. If these resistant parasites are able to spread to other countries, particularly those in Africa, the effect will be disastrous.

Researchers have for decades been working on a vaccine for malaria. One vaccine has recently completed its final trials – although it has only shown partial efficacy, researchers hope that it will save the lives of thousands of children.

Each of these approaches has their merits and each their failings – what works for one area might not for another. There are numerous hurdles that need to be overcome if we are to defeat malaria. As recently as this week, researchers have suggested that there may have been an extra 10,900 malaria deaths in 2014 in West Africa, as local health services have struggled to cope with the Ebola outbreak.

On World Malaria Day 2015 the WHO will be announcing new strategic targets to tackle the disease, calling for a 90% reduction in cases and deaths in 2030 compared to today. In 2013, an estimated 584,000 died of the disease, mostly children under 5 years of age. That works out about one death per minute. The world has come a long way in the fight against malaria, but we’re not there yet.

Benjamin Thompson

The Society for General Microbiology has developed the fact file Malaria – A Global Challenge, and educational resource suitable for KS4 and post-16 students. You can find it here.

Image credit: Penn State on Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Fighting Microbes with Money

ThinkstockPhotos-488724343Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a serious problem. In 2014, the Prime Minister described it as having the potential to cast us back “into the dark ages of medicine”. This month, the Government added AMR to the National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies, threatening that around 80,000 people could die if there was a widespread outbreak of a resistant microbe. Thankfully, the first quarter of 2015 has seen a series of announcements pledging money and resources to fight the global health security risk posed by AMR. The Society’s Policy Officer, Dr Paul Richards, has broken down who announced what and when.

Hidden away in the UK 2015 Budget was the Government’s announcement of a £195 million ‘Fleming Fund’ that will see them working with the Wellcome Trust and other global organisations to improve surveillance networks in low- and middle-income countries. Although the details of the fund are yet to be announced, this figure represents a substantial sum, particularly given that the Medical Research Council have estimated that the UK’s spending on AMR research between 2007 and 2014 totalled £275 million.

The UK research councils have already committed £28.5 million to support AMR research, while the Government’s current initiatives, which include AMR surveillance, infection control and prescribing practices, were described in the UK 5 Year AMR Action Plan. It’s not just the UK committing funds; in January, it was announced that President Obama’s 2016 Budget proposal would seek to double the US Federal Government’s investment on tackling AMR to nearly $1.2 billion.

In February, the European Commission’s ‘Horizon 2020’ funding programme opened calls for the €1 million ‘Horizon Prize for Better Use of Antibiotics’, which has set the challenge of developing a cheap and easy-to-use diagnostic test to distinguish between upper respiratory-tract infections that require antibiotics and those that do not. Similarly, the Longitude Prize was launched in 2014, with a £10 million prize pot available to those developing a point-of-care diagnostic tool that can differentiate between bacterial and viral infections. Continue reading

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The 2015 Annual Conference in tweets

This year, the Society for General Microbiology Annual Conference took place from 30 March – 2 April at the International Convention Centre (ICC) in Birmingham. Feedback from attendees and the sheer number of tweets (over 3,000) that used our conference hashtag #sgmbham during the event showed what a success it was. We’ve picked out a few of our favourite tweets below so you can get an idea of what happened over those four fantastic days.

We always welcome first timers to our conferences…

As well as those who have been there, done that, and come back again.

Some people learnt new things.

Continue reading

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Zoo animals need ‘good’ bacteria, just like us

Carpenters work with wood, artists with paint, but what if the main material in your job was monkey poo? That’s the reality for Dr Suparna Mitra who presented her research on the gut microbiome of zoo animals earlier this week at the Annual Conference. This work could eventually lead to better health and welfare of captive animals.

It’s not just monkeys that are the subject of this fascinating study. Working in collaboration with Banham Zoo, the team, led by Dr Lindsay Hall from the University of East Anglia and Institute of Food Research, have been looking for ‘good’ bacteria in the guts of around 60 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and insects.

We know that humans get health benefits from having good gut bacteria, but there hasn’t been a comprehensive study to find out if the same could be true for zoo animals,” Suparna explained. “Our work is in the early stages but it looks very likely that the within the zoo community – including monkeys, lemurs and exotic birds – animals do have some of the same good bacteria as humans.” Continue reading

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Towards a universal coronavirus vaccine: science fact or science-fiction?

8413670095_703d97c772_zNew research being presented today at the Annual Conference describes how the blood serum of people who have recovered from the SARS (serious acute respiratory syndrome) coronavirus can neutralise the MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) coronavirus, which was recently discovered in Saudi Arabia. Keith Grehan from the University of Kent’s Viral Pseudotype Unit has been researching the possibility of a vaccine that protects against multiple coronaviruses, which may ultimately prevent, or help control, future outbreaks of SARS, MERS, or whatever the next emerging coronavirus might be.

Coronaviruses cause many diseases, including SARS, MERS and even the common cold. Unlike colds, SARS and MERS are serious respiratory diseases; SARS caused an outbreak of severe pneumonia in China in 2002 in which almost one in ten of the 8098 reported cases were fatal.

MERS emerged in the Middle East in 2012 and while the outbreak continues, the rate of serious disease has been low. This could be because, having learned lessons from SARS, the public health response has been effective; it could be that MERS simply isn’t as infectious as SARS; or MERS may be very infectious but without causing disease in all cases. Continue reading

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Get into the groove: Tackling antimicrobial resistance with synthetic genes

4368294723_8a7a405804_b“Biotechnology is set to be the next industrial revolution, and I didn’t want to miss it!” That’s what Chemical Engineer, Emilio Cortes-Sanchez said when asked why he turned to microbiology in his search for new antimicrobial treatments. Emilio’s work was presented earlier this week at the Society’s Annual Conference.

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a growing problem, worldwide. According to a recent review commissioned by the UK government, AMR could cost millions of lives in the coming years if we don’t take action.

Around 60-70% of all known antibiotics are produced by a family of bacteria called actinomycetes. Some of these molecules are too toxic to use in humans but are providing the inspiration for chemists and microbiologists working in collaboration at Strathclyde University, who are searching for new antimicrobial therapies. Continue reading

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Reservoirs of resistance

4561258496_c2320133f3_bWhen we think about the spread of antibiotic resistance, many of us think of a clinical setting, with its associated hospital-acquired infections, or inappropriate use of drugs. Yesterday at the conference, David Graham, Professor of Environmental Engineering at Newcastle University, described his research looking for other reservoirs of resistance.

David began studying the transmission of and spread of resistance genes in the early 2000s. Initially, he and his colleagues were interested in the use of antibiotics in US agriculture, but in order to understand other drivers of resistance, his group needed to find places in the world that didn’t use the drugs in the same way as the US, which led them to the Almendares River in Cuba.

Although antibiotics are used sparingly in Cuba compared with the US, Graham’s group were still able to identify numerous genes in the river related to antibiotic resistance. The results of this work showed a high correlation between the presence of antibiotic resistance genes and sources of industrial pollution, with increased levels of resistance found near solid waste landfills and pharmaceutical factories.

This work suggested that human activity plays an important role in the broader dispersal and development of resistance, but what role do humans themselves play? To try and answer this question, David travelled to India to take samples from the Ganges, one of the world’s great rivers, which stretches over 1,500 miles from its source in the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. Continue reading

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