Tropical Health Update 2019-07-28: Ebola and Malaria Crises

This posting focuses on Malaria and Ebola, both of which have been the recent focus of some disturbing news. The malaria community has been disturbed by the clear documentation of resistance to drugs in Southeast Asia. Those working to contain Ebola in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo saw a change in political leadership even in light of continued violence and potential cross-border spread.

Malaria Drug Resistance

Several sources reported on studies in the Lancet Infectious Diseases concerning the spread of Multidrug-Resistant Malaria in Southeast Asia. Reuters explained that by sing genomic surveillance, researchers concurred that “strains of malaria resistant to two key anti-malarial medicines are becoming more dominant” and “spread aggressively, replacing local malaria parasites,” becoming the dominant strains in Vietnam, Laos and northeastern Thailand.”

The focus was on “the first-line treatment for malaria in many parts of Asia in the last decade has been a combination of dihydroartemisinin and piperaquine, also known as DHA-PPQ,” and resistance had begun to spread in Cambodia between 2007 and 2013. Authors of the study noted that while, “”Other drugs may be effective at the moment, but the situation is extremely fragile, and this study highlights that urgent action is needed.” They further warned of an 9impending Global Health Emergency.

NPR notes that “Malaria drugs are failing at an “alarming” rate in Southeast Asia” and provided some historical context about malaria drug resistance arising in this region since the middle of the 20th century. “Somehow antimalarial drug resistance always starts in that part of the world,” says Arjen Dondorp, who leads malaria research at the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Bangkok and who was a lead author of the report about the randomized trial. Ironically, “one reason could have something to do with the relatively low levels of malaria there. When resistant parasites emerge, they are not competing against a dominant nonresistant strain of malaria and are possibly able to spread easier.

When we are talking about monitoring resistance in low resource and logistically and politically challenging areas, we need to think of appropriate diagnostic tools at the molecular level. Researchers in Guinea-Bissau conducted a proof of concept study and used malaria rapid diagnostic tests applied for parallel sequencing for surveillance of molecular markers. While they noted that, “Factors such as RDT storage prior to DNA extraction and parasitaemia of the infection are likely to have an effect on whether or not parasite DNA can be successfully analysed … obtaining the necessary data from used RDTs, despite suboptimal output, becomes a feasible, affordable and hence a justifiable method.”

A Look at Insecticide Treated Nets

On a positive note, Voice of America provides more details on the insecticide treated net (ITN) monitoring tool developed called “SmartNet” by Dr Krezanoski in collaboration with the Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies in Uganda. The net uses strips of conductive fabric to detect when it’s in use. Dr. Krezanoski was happy to find that people given the net used it no differently that if they were not being observed. The test nets made it clear who what using and not using this valuable health investment and when it was in use. Such fine tuning will be deployed to design interventions to educate net users based on their real-life use patterns.

Another important net issue is local beliefs that may influence use. We can find out when people use nets, but we also need to determine why. In Tanzania, researchers found that people think mosquitoes that bite in the early evening when people are outside relaxing are harmless. As one community member said, “I only fear those that bite after midnight. We’ve always been told that malaria is spread by mosquitoes that bite after midnight.”

Even if people do use their ITNs correctly, we still need to worry about insecticide resistance. A study in Afghanistan reported that, “Resistance to different groups of insecticides in the field populations of An. stephensi from Kunar, Laghman and Nangarhar Provinces of Afghanistan is caused by a range of metabolic and site insensitivity mechanisms.” The authors conclude that vector control programs need to be better prepared to implement insecticide resistance management strategies.

Ebola Crisis Becomes (More) Political

Headlines such as “Congo health minister resigns over response to Ebola crisis” confronted the global health community this week. this happened after the DRC’s relatively new president took control of the response. The President set up a new government office to oversee the response to an outbreak outside of the Ministry of Health which was managing the current outbreak and the previous ones. The new board was set up without the knowledge of the Minister who was traveling to the effected provinces at the time.

The former Minister, Dr Oly Ilunga stated on Twitter that, “Suite à la décision de la @Presidence_RDC.  de gérer à son niveau l’épidémie d’#Ebola, j’ai remis ma démission en tant que Ministre de la Santé ce lundi. Ce fut un honneur de pouvoir mettre mon expertise au service de notre Nation pendant ces 2 années importantes de notre Histoire. (Following the decision of the @Presidence_RDC to manage the # Ebola outbreak, I resigned as Minister of Health on Monday. It was an honor to be able to put my expertise at the service of our Nation during these two important years of our History.)

The former Minister also warned that the “Multisectoral Ebola Response Committee would interfere with the ongoing activities of national and international health workers on the ground in North Kivu and Ituri provinces.” Part of the issue may likely have been “pressure to approve a new vaccine in addition to one that has already been used to protect more than 171,000 people.” People had warned about the potential confusion to the public as well as ethical issues if a second vaccine was used, especially one that did not have the strong accumulated evidence from both the current outbreak as well as the previous one in West Africa.

One might have thought that this would be a time when stability was needed since “The WHO earlier this month declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, a rare step meant to highlight the urgency of the moment that has been used only four times before.” In addition, “the World Bank said it would release $300 million from a special fund set aside for crises like viral outbreaks to help cover the cost of the response.”

Unfortunately one of the msain impediments to successful Ebola control, violence in the region, continues. CIDRAP stated that. “the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a rebel group, attacked two villages near Beni, killing 12 people who live in the heart of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC’s) ongoing Ebola outbreak. The terrorists killed nine in Eringeti and three in Oicha, according to Reuters. ADF has not publicly pledged allegiance to the Islamic state (ISIL), but that hasn’t stopped ISIL from claiming responsibility for the attacks.” It will take more than a change of structure in Kinshasa to deal with the realities on the ground.

CIDRAP also observed that since the resignation of the Health Minister, “DRC officials have provided no update on the outbreak, including statistics on the number of deaths, health workers infected, or suspected cases.” The last was seen on 21 July 2019.

ReliefWeb reports that, “Adding to the peril, the Ebola-affected provinces share borders with Rwanda and Uganda, with frequent cross-border movement for personal travel and trade, increasing the chance that the virus could spread beyond the DRC. There have already been isolated cases of Ebola reported outside of the outbreak zone.”

These are troubling times when parasites and mosquitoes are becoming more resistant to our interventions and when governments and communities are resistant to a clear and stable path to disease containment and control.

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