May 10, 2011 — Despite stepped up worldwide efforts to combat malaria over the last decade, increasing drug resistance, poor access to treatment and prevention regimens, and public apathy are among the reasons the disease remains one of the world’s greatest killers. A preventable disease once on the brink of elimination, malaria continues to claim the life of an African child every 45 seconds, according to World Health Organization (WHO) figures.
Students, faculty and guests gathered at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) recently to hear about the challenges of eradicating malaria, a mosquito-spread disease that causes fever, headache and death. “World Malaria Day 2011: Achieving Progress and Impact,” held in the Kresge cafeteria on April 26, was sponsored by the HSPH Nigerian Students and Scholars Society.
About 3.3 billion people—half of the world’s population—are at risk of malaria, particularly in low-income nations. Malaria infects more than 247 million people each year and kills more than 1 million annually. Sub-Saharan Africa is impacted the most, but malaria also afflicts Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Europe.
University Stepping Up Efforts
In his remarks, HSPH Dean Julio Frenk said Harvard plans to step up efforts to eradicate malaria. A university-wide initiative at the Harvard Malaria Initiative called “Defeating Malaria: From the Genes to the Globe,” is being spearheaded by HSPH and is headquartered at the Harvard Global Health Institute. The multidisciplinary initiative will foster new research and technologies, train health officials from nations afflicted by the disease, and more. “Malaria offers us a unique opportunity to realize what I believe is the main strength of HSPH—to take a particular problem and examine it from the gene to the globe,” Dean Frenk said.
Keynote speaker for the Malaria Day event was Purnima Mane, Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), who spoke on behalf of Babatunde Osotimehin, UNFPA Executive Director and former Minister of Health in Nigeria, who was unable to attend. Mane told of efforts by UNFPA and the health ministry to expand the use of bed nets to protect against mosquitoes and programs to boost treatment and prevention of malaria and other diseases in Africa.
Jay A. Winsten, Associate Dean for Public and Community Affairs and Frank Stanton Center Director for the Center for Health Communication at HSPH, and special advisor to the UN Secretary General Envoy on Malaria, said it’s a challenge to keep malaria at the forefront of the public’s mind. “The biggest challenge of all is to sustain the public and media’s attention,” Winsten said. “We all have our work cut out for us.”
Sarah Volkman, senior research scientist at HSPH, discussed new findings on drug resistance in malaria that she and her colleagues at HSPH, Harvard and the Broad Institute published in PLoS Genetics in April. They identified several genes that may be implicated in the malaria parasite’s ability to evade drug treatments. She discussed the need for new malaria drugs and how the increasing number of counterfeit drugs in stricken nations is contributing to drug resistance.
Other speakers included Marc Muskavitch, adjunct professor of immunology and infectious diseases, Matthias Marti, assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases, Alix Morris, Malaria Operational Research Manager for the Clinton Health Access Initiative, and Michael Olugbile, MPH Candidate, 2011, president of the HSPH Nigerian Students and Scholars Society. Cassandra Okechukwu, assistant professor of society, human development and health at HSPH, introduced the speakers.
Additional World Malaria Day events at Harvard included a roundtable discussion. Read the Harvard Gazette story.