UN agency hails decoding of malaria genomes as public health breakthrough

UN agency hails decoding of malaria genomes as public health breakthrough

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Describing it as a "turning point" for global public health, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) today hailed the announcement by scientists that they have decoded the genetic information of the most dangerous malaria parasite and the most important mosquito that transmits it.

The breakthroughs, published this week in the journals Nature and Science, open an entirely new field to public health researchers, WHO said. With this new knowledge, malaria scientists will be able to pry information long-hidden in the genomes that can be used to design new insecticides, new repellents and new drugs.

For the past two years, a WHO partner, the Tropical Disease Research (TDR) programme, has been training over 100 scientists from Latin America, Africa and Asia in how to search the genomes, identify vulnerabilities, and build new genetically based drugs and insecticides.

"There is now information for everyone to work 24 hours a day to find solutions that can save millions of lives," said TDR director Carlos Morel.

According to WHO, malaria infects more than 300 million people every year, killing at least 1 million. About 90 per cent of the deaths are among children under five.

Public health campaigns against malaria have been stymied over the last decade as both the mosquito, Anopheles gambiae, and the parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, have evolved mechanisms to escape the limited, affordable technologies available in the developing world.

Drugs targeting the parasite have been losing their effectiveness, WHO said. Resistance to choloroquine, which is the cheapest and most widely used anti-malarial, is common throughout Africa. The next most effective, but more expensive, drug, sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine, is also succumbing to resistance in highly endemic areas of the continent.