During a press conference prior to the release of the executive summary of 3-year study of trends and future projections for the factors and determinants that underpin malaria by its Strategic Advisory Group on Malaria Eradication (SAGme), WHO outlined some hopeful signs emanating from the SAGme including
- Lack of biological barriers to malaria eradication
- Recognition of the massive social and economic benefits that would provide a return on investment in eradication, and
- Megatrends in the areas of factors such as land use, climate, migration, urbanization that could inhibit malaria transmission
Concerning the first point, the executive summary notes that, “We did not identify biological or environmental barriers to malaria eradication. In addition, our review of models accounting for a variety of global trends in the human and biophysical environment over the next three decades suggest that the world of the future will have much less malaria to contend with.”
The group did agree that, “using current tools, we will still have 11 million cases of malaria in Africa in 2050.” So one wonders whether there are biological barriers or not.
Interestingly the group did identify, “Potential biological threats to malaria eradication include development of insecticide and antimalarial drug resistance, vector population dynamics and altered vector behaviour. For example, Anopheles vectors might adapt to breeding in polluted water, and mosquito vector species newly introduced to Africa, such as Anopheles stephensi, could spread more widely into urban settings.”
This discussion harkens back to an important conceptual article by Bruce Aylward and colleagues that raised the question in the American Journal of Public Health, “When Is a Disease Eradicable?” They outlined three important criteria that had been proposed at two international conferences in 1997 and 1998.
- biological and technical feasibility
- costs and benefits, and
- societal and political considerations
Their further expansion on the biological issues using smallpox as an example is instructive. They noted that not only are humans essential for the life cycle of the organism, but that there was no other reservoir for the causative virus, and the virus could not amplify in the environment. In short, there were no vectors, as in the case of malaria. The relatively recent documentation of transmission of malaria between humans and other primates of different plasmodium species is another biological concern. At this point, Malaysia, for example, is reporting more cases of Plasmodium knowlesi in humans that either P vivax or P falciparum.
Another biological issue identified by Aylward and colleagues was the fact that smallpox had one effective and proven intervention, the vaccine. Application of the vaccine could be targeted using photograph disease recognition cards as the signs were quite specific to the disease. Malaria has several effective interventions, but most strategies emphasize the importance of using a combination of these, and implementation is met with a number of management and logistical challenges. The signs and symptoms of malaria are confused with a number of febrile illnesses.
Finally, two other issues raised concern. Insecticide resistance was recognized in the first malaria eradication effort, and is raising its head again, as pointed out by SAGme. Comparing smallpox and yaws, the challenge of latent or sub-clinical/asymptomatic infection was mentioned. Malaria too, is beleaguered with this problem.
Clearly, we must not lose momentum in the marathon (not a race) to eliminate malaria, but we must, as WHO stressed at the press conference, increase our research and development efforts to strengthen existing tools and develop new once to address the biological and logistical challenges.