The Malaria Project – A Valiant Attempt to Cure Malaria Permanently

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Malaria is one of the oldest disease known to mankind with its origins dating back to some 50,000 to 100,000 years. The African nations, who are struggling from the deadly Ebola virus even today also have one of the worst mortality rates when it comes to Malaria disease. Malaria vaccines over the years have also undergone changes as the virus tends to become immune to the older vaccine after a few years. There was a courageous attempt made by the US government way back during the Second World War to eradicate malaria permanently by finding a cure.

Let us look at this very interesting operation which has been revealed recently in a book called The Malaria Project by Karen Masterson.

Robert Seder is chief of cellular immunology at the Vaccine Research Center of the US National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. He applauds the chronicle of a secret US wartime project to vanquish the disease.

Malaria has a long history and a deadly present: every year it kills as many as 1 million people, mostly children in sub-Saharan Africa. Over the past decade, mortality from the disease — caused by the Plasmodium parasite transmitted by mosquitoes — has been cut through the use of bed nets and other public-health measures championed by the World Health Organization’s Roll Back Malaria campaign, among others.

The effectiveness of such measures may have plateaued, however, and the disease is becoming resistant to drugs such as artemisinin-based therapies.

In 2015, the first vaccine (GlaxoSmithKline’s RTS,S) will be considered for approval in Africa. It confers 30–50% protection that wanes over time.

Given all that, insights into historical grapplings with the disease are highly useful. Such insights abound in The Malaria Project, science journalist Karen Masterson’s chronicle of a secret Second World War scheme run by the White House and US War Department. In the 1940s, the project drew in leading scientists and clinicians to find a cure for malaria — at the time decimating US troops — and isolated the safe, effective drug chloroquine.

As Masterson shows, today’s fight against the disease, heavily weighted towards drug and vaccine development, bears the project’s stamp. Masterson discovered the project in 2004 in a letter in the US National Archives. Writing in 1943, physician George Carden described a plan to test malaria drugs on patients at a psychiatric hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. Carden was part of the Malaria Project, working with chemists, entomologists, immunologists and clinicians to assess some 14,000 malaria drug candidates.

tropical-disease specialist Dr. Lowell Coggeshall’s observation that a cure does not prevent reinfection remains pertinent even today.

Masterson relates how scientific understanding of malaria advanced. The project’s trailblazing tropical-disease specialist Lowell Coggeshall, for instance, had worked on mosquito control in canal and dam construction since the 1920s. His observations, such as that a cure does not prevent reinfection, remain pertinent. But it was Swedish renal specialist Alf Alving who pinned chloroquine down. Malaria could not be grown in culture, so the drugs were tested in human volunteers, including conscientious objectors and medical students. The approach was modelled on 1917 research by Julius Wagner-Jauregg.

The Austrian psychiatrist discovered that some people with advanced syphilis (who would otherwise have died) could be cured if they received blood taken from people infected with malaria. In the Malaria Project’s crucial studies, at Stateville Prison in Illinois, Alving recruited prisoners to act as both assistants and test subjects for compounds that were safe and protective in animal tests.

He lobbied for inmates who tested the drugs to get higher compensation and certificates of merit for use at parole hearings, and helped them to get jobs after release. One of Alving’s assistants was the infamous murderer Nathan Leopold. Alving’s breakthrough came from studying SN-7618, a compound that could be given once a week with minimal toxicity.

..half a million US soldiers were infected during the Second World War.

Ironically, the original version, sontochin, was made in Nazi-occupied Paris and conveyed to the US military by Vichy medics. Alving found that changing the dosage and intervals at which it was given would cure malaria, and chloroquine became the standard treatment until resistance developed in certain strains. Human volunteers still test malaria vaccines because such safe, effective drugs can cure them of the controlled infection.

A revelation of The Malaria Project is the toll malaria took on troops: some half a million US soldiers were infected during the Second World War, for instance. Douglas MacArthur, leading Allied forces against Japan, realized that malaria was weakening troops and launched control operations.

Today, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation plans to use public health measures as well as drugs and possibly vaccines in its malaria eradication strategy.

Leading troops in Italy, by contrast, George Patton showed little compassion for infected soldiers and did not act — even as Adolf Hitler flooded land to encourage mosquito breeding. The Malaria Project also covers the key role of the US Rockefeller Foundation and Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now Rockefeller University). Rather than search for magic bullets, they focused on malaria eradication through public health and cost-effectiveness.

Today, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (from which Robert Seder receives some funding) plans to use public health measures as well as drugs and possibly vaccines in its malaria eradication strategy. Mosquito control, improved education and economic development remain central. But more than 60 years after Alving’s breakthrough, the most crucial advances will come from safe, effective and durable vaccines to prevent malaria, and drug treatments to eradicate it.

We humans have the determination of breaking all barriers when it comes to challenges. Diseases like Malaria have been a dominant blotch in the path to success when it comes to the field of medical science. Let us hope we will find a permanent cure for malaria and such deadly diseases in the future. Till then it is our responsibility to try our best to be aware of the various causes of malaria and what we can do to prevent it.

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