Thursday, February 7, 2008

It's 2008: Do you know where your virulent malaria strain is?

Does anybody remember malaria? Of course they do. The scourge that kills hundreds of thousands each year; the disease that dampens African economies; the mosquito-born illness that drives once-bright and precocious infants into dullards. As somebody said, it’s the hot disease of the new millennium. (Move over, AIDS & TB and maybe ebola.)

File this under: Keeping your optimism in check. Twice in the past fortnight we’ve brought news of scientists – African scientists, thank you – making breakthroughs in the fight against the mosquito-born malady that is malaria. First, the Malian trials against malaria, reported to you here.

And now we’re proud to announce a group of researchers from Burkina Faso have been cooking up a concoction to fight malaria in small children. In a paper published in the open-access but peer-reviewed Nutrition Journal, these scientists found that a mixture of vitamin A and zinc could play a synergistic role for reducing the risk of many infections, including malaria.

How do they know? A double-blind placebo-controlled trial of a single dose of vitamin A with a daily zinc supplement was given to children between the ages of six and 72 months. The vitamin A was given as a single dose (200,000 IU) and the children received 10 mg of zinc six days a week for a period of six months.

What did they learn? A “significant decrease” of 34 percent in the prevelance of malaria for those children who received the supplement. For those placebo takers, the rate dropped 3.5 percent. Researchers also found that those given supplements experienced a 30.2 percent reduction in malaria cases. It also took these kids longer to fall ill from malaria than those receiving the supplement. And, for those who became ill, the supplement group had 22 percent fewer episodes of fever than those in placebo group.

How does it work? Vitamin A is essential for the normal functioning of the body’s immune system. However, for the body to metabolize it better, zinc is an essential ingredient. Scientists from places like Papua New Guinea, Peru and Ghana have found that either vitamin A or zinc may protect infants from malaria. The BurkinabĂ© science team decided to test the two elements working together.

The bottom line: These results suggest, the researchers are at pains to point out, that vitamin A plus a zinc supplement reduces the risk of fever and clinical episodes of malaria among small children.

Researchers did not say what the parents of children in the placebo group thought of the results.

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