Researchers have made what they are calling a "groundbreaking" discovery concerning cerebral malaria - one of the most deadly forms of the mosquito-borne disease - in children. Now they hope that these revelations can pave the way for new treatment options that can save many young lives.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), malaria is a life-threatening disease caused by parasites that find their way into humans through the bites of infected mosquitoes. The resulting infection causes between 470,000 and 789,000 deaths each year - mostly among poor children in Africa. There, it is said that a child dies every minute from malaria.
And while the illness is both preventable and curable, the Plasmodium parasite, spread by female Anopheles mosquitoes, is vicious and aggressive, causing chill, vomiting, and fever on the first day of symptoms, and quickly escalating into severe anemia, respiratory distress, or even cerebral problems.
In some cases, parasite-infected blood cells can even clog up vessels in the brain, causing severe inflammation, brain damage, and eventually death. In Africa, this most deadly form of malaria - called cerebral malaria - claims 90 percent of the region's victims. In 2013 alone, 437,000 African children died from the disease before they reached the age of 5, according to the WHO.
A new study, recently published in The New England Journal of Medicine, details how Michigan State University's Terrie Taylor led researchers in assessing child victims and survivors of cerebral malaria with a MRI scanner - a rare piece of technology in Malawi, where the study was launched.
"[The scans] found that survivors' brains were either never swollen or decreased in size after 2-3 days," Taylor explained in a statement.
In some cases the brain can become so swollen that it is forced out through the bottom of the skull and compresses the brain stem. This pressure causes the children to stop breathing and die.
"This was a triumphant moment," Taylor added. "I wanted to say to the parasite 'Ha! You never thought we'd get an MRI, did you?'"
Now that they know exactly how the parasite is killing patients, the researchers can work towards finding effective treatment options even while investigating the disease further.
"It's possible that using ventilators to keep the children breathing until the swelling subsides might save lives, but ventilators are few and far between in Africa at the moment," the researcher explained. "Because we know now that the brain swelling is what causes death ... the next step is to identify what's causing the swelling and then develop treatments targeting those causes."
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