Fighting malaria

Malaria is one of the world’s biggest public-health concerns, killing around 700,000 people a year – many of them children, and many in Sub-Saharan Africa, although the disease is also common in Southeast Asia. Efforts to halt or even slow the spread of malaria include preventing the breeding of the Anopheles mosquitoes that carry the Plasmodium parasite, using protective nets, and anti-malarial medicines such as artemisinin. While medicines help, one ongoing problem is that the parasite becomes resistant to treatment.

One hope may lie in the root of a creeping plant, Cryptolepis sanguinolenta, indigenous to Ghana. TUNZA spoke to Alexandra Graham – President of the St. Karol School of Nursing in Ghana and founder of PhytoSearch, a company that seeks development of African indigenous medicines – about Cryptolepis. She explained that, even when there is plenty of plant diversity available, it can still be a struggle to exploit it to help alleviate disease.

“Cryptolepis sanguinolenta has been used for generations in Ghana as an anti-malarial medicine. It is unique because it has anti-malarial properties as well as fever-reducing and pain-relief properties. Traditionally, it has been used as a decoction – the root is boiled and the liquid drunk. Now, clinical trials have been done on delivering the root in the form of a teabag, which is easier to prepare – and it works perfectly.

“But a major problem is that the root tastes very bitter. Typically, patients take it on the first day, but on the second, when well-being returns and the fever has gone, they stop taking it and get sick again.

“We hope to take the root through the usual clinical trials for a botanical medicine that would be available as an easy-to-ingest capsule or tablet. In this form patients would be more likely to complete the three- or four-day course of pills required for recovery.

“But such development takes funding, which is difficult to source, in part because the root is a natural, not synthesized, medicine, and many trials – for example those funded by the Gates Foundation – are only interested in unique molecules. But it should be remembered that artemisinin, which is the primary drug currently used against malaria, was originally derived from a plant discovered in China thousands of years ago. (It is now also widely grown in Southeast Asia and East Africa.)”

Thinking ahead

“Once resistance to any antimalarial medicine gets under way – and the parasite is now becoming resistant to artemisinin in Southeast Asia – what should our backup be? My company is working to find medicines that might prevent malaria across the Sahelian region, looking at using the indigenous knowledge that we have in Africa. I think there’s great hope of developing this root that cures malaria, offering a backup to what we have in the system right now. The scary thing is that the medicines we have now could become ineffective before we have developed anything new, and we’ll be left with nothing.”

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This post is also available in: French, Spanish