Home » Content » SADC Malaria Week Part 1: Research advances towards a Malaria Free Africa

Yesterday marked the beginning of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Malaria Week taking place from 06 to 10 November 2017, dedicated to creating awareness and educating the public about malaria and the advances made in the fight against the disease. 

In this, Part 1 of the article, we share insights from Professor Lyn-Marie Birkholtz, holder of the DST/NRF SARChI Chair in Sustainable Malaria Control and Head of the Parasite Control Cluster at the University of Pretoria Institute of Sustainable Malaria Control (UP ISMC), a MRC Collaborative Centre for Malaria Research, about the disease and highlight the advances that have been made to enable research towards the elimination of it.

Impact of Malaria

Malaria is a serious and often fatal vector-borne disease caused by single-cell parasitic protozoans that are mainly transmitted to humans by certain Anopheles mosquitoes.

The World Health Organisation regards malaria as ‘a massive unfinished agenda’. In 2015 alone, there were an estimated 212 million new cases of malaria worldwide. Despite recent progress, the disease continues to have a devastating impact, particularly on the African continent where it accounts for an estimated 90% of cases and 92% of malaria deaths.

Most of these deaths occur in children under the age of five years and pregnant women. Malaria continues the cycle of disease and poverty in the developing world because the countries in which it is most endemic are among the poorest. Most of the time, in spite of the disease being so deadly, illness and death from malaria is both preventable and treatable.

Malaria remains a killer on the African continent, resulting in more than 400 000 deaths per year, even though global efforts have, for some time, focused on eliminating this infectious disease. It is clear that no single approach to sustained control will lead to its elimination. 

South Africa is one of the frontline countries leading regional malaria strategies, aimed at eliminating it by 2020. The SADC countries recognise malaria as a major concern and one of the number one killers and causes of poverty in the region.

Malaria Control Programmes - SARChI Chair in Sustainable Malaria Control

The various malaria control programmes in the different countries, including South Africa, have been doing remarkable work in controlling the disease as much as possible over the years.

Since its establishment in 2013, the DST/NRF SARChI Chair in Sustainable Malaria Control research contributes to knowledge about the interplay between malaria control and eliminating infection by focusing on both the pathogenic and transmission forms of malaria parasites, specifically the most deadly one, Plasmodium falciparum.

The SARChI Chair in Sustainable Malaria Control was awarded to the University of Pretoria (UP) as lead institution in the country with a focus on all aspects of malaria research, directly influencing the South Africa Department of Health’s Malaria Elimination Strategy. 

The Chair’s research focus is on “the interplay between parasite biology and drug discovery, associated with host-parasite interactions to predict therapeutic outcomes. In this way, the research aims to deliver novel interventions useful to the malaria control and elimination agenda” says Prof. Birkholtz

The Chair harnesses expertise in malaria biology in South Africa to enable sustained malaria control in the African context. The research program undertaken by Prof. Birkholtz and her team is nationally and internationally trend setting and transdisciplinary. 

Highlights of the Chair’s research include contributing to the first African-borne clinical candidate antimalarial to be useful in elimination agendas. This trendsetting nature of the work has led to an invited opinion statement in the leading journal in the field of parasitology, Trends in Parasitology, in 2016.

According to Prof. Birkholtz, the ability to block the continued transmission of malaria between humans and mosquitoes is a critical step to efficient malaria eradication. Malaria elimination becomes a reality only once this cycle is broken. 

Malaria parasites infect a person who then experiences the characteristic flu-like symptoms of the disease and possibly death in untreated cases. However, these parasites can also hide away in a patients’ bone marrow and be carried around until it is picked up by a feeding mosquito which transmit the parasite to another unsuspecting individual. 

“Malaria elimination will only be achieved if we can treat symptomatic patients and simultaneously get rid of the transmissible forms of the parasite. This will require a ‘magic bullet’ drug,” says Prof. Birkholtz. 

The Chair’s programme has been very successful, not only in terms of expanding on South Africa’s capabilities and research excellence in malaria parasite biology and drug discovery, but also in training a new generation of African scientists. The Chair’s programme has expanded to a total of 31 members, including 24 postgraduate students, four postdoctoral fellows, four staff scientists and one young co-investigator mentored in the Chair’s programme.

Is it, therefore, not surprising that it has just been approved for another five-year cycle, effective from 2018 and has also been upgraded from Tier 2 level to Tier 1. With the renewal, the next five years will see an expansion of these capabilities and the establishment of a regional Centre of Excellence in malaria parasite biology and drug discovery. 

About DST/NRF SARChI chairs

The South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) was established in 2006 by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the National Research Foundation (NRF). It is designed to attract and retain excellence in research and innovation at South African public universities through the establishment of Research Chairs at public universities in South Africa with a long-term investment trajectory of up to fifteen years.

Research Chairs are held by a university in partnership with a public research institution such as: another university, a science council, a national research facility or an academic health complex. Since inception, 150 Research Chairs were awarded to 21 public universities across the country in open and directed categories; priority research areas; science and technology for poverty alleviation; innovation, engineering and technology development; and within the national science and technology missions.

Research Chairs are established at Tier 1 or Tier 2 level based on the candidate's research track record and standing, and his or her track record for training postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Tier 1 Chairs are for established researchers who are recognised internationally as leaders in their fields and/or have received international recognition for their research contributions. Tier 2 Chairs are for established researchers with the potential to achieve international recognition for their research contributions in the next five to ten years.

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SARChI, Malaria, SADC, Malaria Week, Lyn-Marie Birkholtz, University of Pretoria
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