Many people are not aware, but malaria is a disease that claims over 800,000 lives a year worldwide, most of those being children and infants.
In areas where the disease is endemic, every family can name members whose lives were claimed by malaria.
It’s a horrible and unavoidable fact of life, compounded by poverty, ignorance and the inaccessibility of clinics and medicines for those who live in the remote areas which are most affected.
While Sub-Saharan Africa is where the biggest numbers are, right here on Palawan malaria is the #1 health issue Palawanos and other upland people groups face. Everyone gets malaria. Their babies die of malaria. Their spouses die of malaria. And when old people (for Palawanos, read: over 50) die, it was often malaria that finally finished them off. And yes, expat missionaries and their children get malaria, too.
Malaria is no joke. Mosquito-borne parasites destroy your blood. But to help deal with the constant threat, we missionaries have indulged in a bit of humor noir and called it “Palawan Flu” whenever we come down with the all-too-common disease.
Malaria is actually more common than the flu here. And milder cases do indeed have flu-like symptoms (headache, body ache, fever, chills, nausea).
But the malaria headache can often progress to a “brain-cancer” level of pain, and the chills indicate that most of the victim’s red blood cells (RBCs) have burst, which can lead to a fatal degree of anemia.
And there are always the possible complications of cerebral malaria, where husks of burst RBCs clog up the capillaries in the brain and cause dementia or death, or the equally dreaded blackwater fever, where hemoglobin from destroyed RBCs leaks into the blood and darkens the urine. Fatal kidney failure often ensues. Yes, malaria is no joke.
There has never been a vaccine for malaria. It’s difficult to create a vaccine for a parasite, especially one like malaria with multiple distinct stages in its life cycle. And sadly, on at least one occasion, an executive absconded with millions of dollars of desperately needed grant money, effectively shutting down the research program that was counting on those funds.
But now, apparently, there is a glimmer of hope. A vaccine has been tested in Africa with an initial success rate of 50% reduction in malaria cases for the children who were vaccinated. The goal is 100% effectiveness, but no one would complain too much if we were able to reduce the annual number of deaths to 400,000 from the current 800,000. GlaxoSmithKline and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have teamed up and invested hundreds of millions of dollars in producing and testing this new vaccine. Thanks to the Gates for using some of their wealth for this worthy cause.
Let’s all pray for continued success in this research endeavor.
Lives are at stake.