Friday, August 31, 2012

Suck It, Mosquitoes

The University of Cape Town in South Africa thinks they might have managed to solve one of the more intractable problems in the developing world: malaria. Malaria treatment right now is a very difficult, labor-intensive thing with a long recovery time, if you fully recover at all. What the Cape Town researchers have come up with is a single-dose pill. Which is kind of an improvement.

It's also an improvement that Africa was able to develop it internally, without needing to bring in the more traditional nations in the scientific world. As professor Kelly Chibale explained on Tuesday, “This is the first ever clinical molecule that’s been discovered out of Africa, by Africans, from a modern pharmaceutical industry drug discovery programme. The potent drug has been tested on animals and has shown that a single oral dose has completely cured those infected with malaria parasites.”

The animal testing reports a 100% success rate; clinical trials are scheduled for late next year. If that pans out, as Chibale claimed, it could mean 24% of child deaths in sub-Saharan Africa would have a cure waiting for them. And further than that, it's possible, given how effective the pill has been in animal testing, that it could not only treat malaria but prevent its spread as well, which would be a path to killing the disease altogether. Best-case scenario, it could be on the market around 2020.

Sri Lanka is way ahead of Cape Town. They're closing in on eradicating malaria by 2014. Despite a civil war spanning decades, Sri Lanka has gone from over a quarter-million cases of malaria as late as 1999 to 175 cases in 2011, 124 of which originated in Sri Lanka. The big drop finished in 2005- when they'd gotten it down to 591- and since then it's been a matter of mopping up those last several hundred.

Cambodia, whose local strain of malaria has a reputation for being the first to resist any new drug, is going to be the acid test if the Cape Town drug gets to market. If it can eventually make headway there, the odds of eradication increase dramatically.

But eradication's still a long way off. Don't start popping champagne yet. The drug has to get approved, get to market, get distributed to all manner of remote regions and wipe the disease out without trace. Disease eradication is exceedingly rare. Only two have actually been knocked out: smallpox and rinderpest. (Polio and guinea worm are not, though they're on their last legs.)

The conversation can start to happen. But don't end it.

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