Making malaria history
Malaria is an ancient disease that still lives—and kills—around the globe. This is the story of an MSU researcher’s decades-long battle to uncover the mysteries of the disease in the hopes of putting an end to it.
For nearly three decades, Terrie Taylor, University Distinguished Professor of internal medicine in the MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine, has been researching malaria, a disease transmitted by mosquitoes that infects red blood cells and that can damage the brain. Taylor spends six months of every year in Malawi—a country hard hit by malaria—researching the disease that kills as many as a million people each year and treating patients, the vast majority of whom are children.
The African country’s first and only MRI unit—the result of a partnership among MSU, Malawi and General Electric Co.—now allows Taylor and her colleagues to see inside malaria patients like never before. Taylor says the MRI unit is invaluable to her research and to the children of Malawi, who are at the greatest risk of dying. With a clearer picture of the disease, the MSU researcher and her team are helping save lives, but they continue to search for more effective means of treatment.
Taylor and her colleagues are making progress finding new treatments. They’ve recently identified a test that can determine which children with malaria are more likely to develop cerebral malaria, a much more life-threatening form of the disease. The screening tool could be a game changer in resource-limited rural health clinics, where workers see hundreds of sick children each day.
“This parasite is wily, yet slowly but surely we are stripping away its defenses, and we are close to discovering its secrets,” says Taylor. “It is a tenacious foe that kills a lot of kids. We have made a lot of progress, and our goal of developing feasible and affordable interventions is within reach.”
While the outlook for treatment is hopeful, the impact of malaria continues to be devastating, with children dying every day. And while the population in the United States is relatively safe, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2013, malaria cases in the United States hit a 40-year high.
In addition, malaria imposes a heavy social and economic burden on developing countries, and as the world depends increasingly on economic growth in Africa and South America, that burden threatens to broaden.
“Malaria is an ancient disease, but it is still beating us and killing hundreds of thousands of people each year, mostly children, in sub-Saharan Africa. It is very tricky. It is the ‘Voldemort’ of parasites.”