A Moving TargetWe may be closer to eradicating malaria than ever before. At a United Nations summit in September 2008, a new global initiative was unveiled that promises to save at least four million lives by 2015. The Roll Back Malaria Partnership is the first coalition between governments and NGOs of its size. It details plans to allocate $5 billion a year, over at least nine years, to multiply the distribution of available treatments and to speed innovations. And not a moment too soon: Malaria threatens half of the world’s population—3.3 billion people in 109 countries—and is to blame for more than a million deaths every year.
The disease is caused by a parasite that is transmitted from one human to another by the bite of infected female anopheles mosquitoes. They can drain only a few drops of blood at a time, but all it takes is one microscopic plasmodium protozoan to wreak havoc. Within two weeks of entering the bloodstream, the organism can multiply several hundred million times and destroy enough oxygen-carrying red blood cells to suffocate and kill a person, organ by organ. Or in the case of cerebral malaria, the parasites commandeer red blood cells and block capillaries in the brain, leading to a coma.
"Because there is such an astronomical population of malaria parasites, it’s likely that every genetic mutation will occur within a given time," explains Tovi Lehmann, Ph.D., facility head of the National Institutes of Health’s Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Research. The result is an epidemiologist’s nightmare: Through trial and error, the parasite will inevitably unlock the right genetic code to counter whatever new treatment is developed.
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