Tackling drug-resistant malaria must be EU research priority
Ahead of world malaria day, Marlene Mizzi writes that despite ongoing research efforts, the disease is gaining strength.
The establishment of a 'day' dedicated to something or someone is driven by the need to highlight, flag, honour or raise awareness. World malaria day, on 25 April, has been established to enhance the visibility and underline the importance of dealing with malaria, which represents a major concern for the world health organisation (WHO).
Over one million people die of malaria each year – most of whom are children under five and pregnant women. In addition, there are an estimated 250 million reported cases of the illness, and over three billion people at risk of infection. The WHO is rightly concerned, especially if in addition to malaria-prone countries in sub-Saharan Africa and sub-tropical Central and South America, the disease spreads to Europe.
"Developing drugs which are beyond the reach - both geographically and economically - of malaria infected regions defeats the very purpose of the millions of euros pumped into research and development"
An immediate challenge in the fight against malaria is the parasite’s increasing resistance to treatment, particularly to well-known and relatively inexpensive drugs. Consequently, many affected countries will have to turn to a combination of drugs or more expensive alternatives to stimulate progress and address this resistance.
Fortunately, research into malaria has been strong in Europe, namely through the sixth (2002-2006) and seventh (2007-2013) framework programmes (FPs) for research and technological development. The inclusion of researchers from malaria-endemic countries has ensured long-term cooperation and links with research facilities in these regions.
Under the sixth framework programme, research was significantly intensified and very large malaria projects were supported. There were also major clinical trials supported by the EU through the European and developing countries clinical trials partnerships (EDCTP) where funds were provided to produce new drugs, vaccines or microbicides and elevate them to the more costly phase two and three clinical trials.
Under FP7, malaria once again featured prominently for research support as part of the ‘infectious diseases' programme. A major difference from other programmes is that FP7 focused on targeting the origin of the disease and controlling malaria infection by targeting the mosquito vector.
However, the challenge is making vaccines and antimalarial drugs available to malaria-infected regions, although the resistance of the disease to current affordable drugs is an immediate and urgent problem. Drugs which have traditionally cured and treated millions may end up being ineffective, causing a surge in deaths from this disease. Developing drugs which are beyond the reach - both geographically and economically - of malaria-infected regions defeats the very purpose of the millions of euros pumped into research and development.
Total global eradication of this disease should be the ultimate aim of research efforts. The United Nations millennium development goals and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, together with the WHO's global malaria action plan, are aiming to achieve this on a country-by-country basis.
The importance of funds dedicated to research in eradicating malaria can only be appreciated when taking into consideration the fact that this disease costs more than €11bn in indirect losses each year - not to mention the loss of life.
On 25 April, world malaria day will serve to remind us of the importance of fighting this monster of a disease and of increasing funding for research and development, clinical tests and investing in people’s health, education and the eradication of poverty.
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