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March 3, 2010

Malaria, the ancient killer lives on

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Tutankhamun has fascinated Egyptologists since his mummy and treasures, hidden in an intact tomb, were discovered in 1922. Perhaps the greatest source of fascination is why this boy, who ascended the throne of Egypt at age nine, died 10 years later.

Was he murdered by a blow to the back of the head? Was he poisoned? Did he die from fat that was released into his bloodstream after he broke his leg? Results from a recent Egyptian–German study, though, reveal a much less complicated possibility—malaria.

“It is amazing to think that we were able to extract DNA from the body of a person who died 3,000 years ago,” Dr. Zaki Hawass told reporters in Cairo, where he announced that the report will published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Now, more than 3,000 years later, malaria is still the number one killer disease in black Africa, including Kenya and Tanzania.

The disease is spread by the parasite Plasmodium falciparum. The parasite first invades the digestive system of an Anopheles mosquito, and is then transmitted to a human though the mosquito’s saliva when it bites.

The parasite multiplies in the liver and then enters the bloodstream where it infects and destroys red blood cells. Other varieties of the Plasmodium parasite, though, cause illness but not death.

Symptoms of malaria include high fever, chills, muscle aches, and abdominal pain. Each year, 350 to 500 million cases of malaria occur worldwide, and over 1 million people in sub-Saharan Africa die, most of them young children.

In Tanzania, malaria kills 291 people a day, said Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete last week. That’s equal to 10 people every hour.

“We must ensure we annihilate these mosquitoes and their breeding sites,” he said. “It is possible to ensure that we become the last generation to die of malaria. Other countries in the world have managed. It is possible for us to make it.”

Kikwete is also the director of the African Leaders Malaria Alliance (ALMA), a unifying agency that brings African leaders together to raise global awareness and support for the fight against malaria.

Kikwete mentioned three ways Tanzania can fight and win the war against malaria: using insecticide-treated mosquito nets, stopping the replication of malaria causing-mosquitoes, and using effective drugs.

Tanzania hopes to be one of the first black African countries to achieve universal access to mosquito nets and affordable malaria treatment for all citizens. Kikwete said while children under five were currently getting free nets, plans were in the final stages to enable every household to have at least two treated nets.

Tanzania’s new anti-malaria campaign is called Malaria Haikubaliki (“Malaria is Unacceptable”). It recruits advocates from all sectors of society, including business, sports, entertainment and religion.

A concert called Zinduka! (“Wake Up!”) was held February 13 in the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam, and featured Tanzanian musicians, international partners, senior government officials and business leaders.

Kikwete, danced with renowned Taarab musician Bi Kidude and the concert was available on TV and radio across the country. The new campaign has also inspired 18 popular musicians to collaborate on a song about malaria—the largest collaboration in Tanzanian history.

The campaign is meant to help Africans take a new perspective on malaria, but no African country can do this alone.

“Africans think that malaria is inevitable, that there is nothing they can do about it. We are going to prove this wrong. We can eliminate malaria deaths,” said Prof. David Mwakyusa, Tanzania’s Minister for Health and Social Welfare. “Along with the president, I hope every Tanzanian will join together to declare that malaria is unacceptable in our country in 2010.”

The West must provide support for Africans to get their hands on expensive, patented drugs held by western drug companies who have a monopoly on them.

Canadians can advocate for a “Ten for One” deal, whereby drug companies donate 10 pills for every one sold.

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