Personal stakes in the fight against malaria

Personal stakes in the fight against malaria

Personal stakes in the fight against malaria

Edgar Pollard is a JCU PhD candidate with unique motivation. A citizen of the Solomon Islands, and a member of Rotarians Against Malaria (RAM) he’s conducting research into how mosquitoes transmit malaria. Unlike most disease researchers, Edgar has had a dangerous brush with the disease he is researching. He nearly died from malaria before deciding to study how it’s transmitted. Since undertaking his research, both of his children have become ill with, and recovered from, the disease that kills more than 400,000 people annually, most of them children.

Edgar’s research is focused on how vector control methods have affected the mosquitoes that carry malaria. He’s hoping to submit his PhD in the next three months, and has found some interesting results along the way. The key finding is that mosquito control methods such as Indoor Residual Spraying (IRS) and mosquito nets, have caused the disease-carrying insect to change its habits.

“In the Solomon Islands, what we’ve come to know is that the times that transmission is happening, these peak mosquito biting times, is early evening, about 7 to 8pm,” Edgar said. “This is happening in outdoor areas around the home. Areas such as the veranda and outdoor kitchen areas where people are mostly active, this is where we’re finding the mosquitoes, as well.”

With this information in tow, Edgar has a few ideas about how people might be better protected from malaria-carrying mosquitoes. He hopes to implement these measures when he heads back to the Solomon Islands.

“We have some ideas on what we could trial with some existing methods and some new methods out there that are being tested in Africa,” he said.

“When I get home I’d like to work in some of the hotspots around the Solomon Islands and maybe look at residual spraying around veranda and kitchen areas,” he said.

“One of the existing methods is called IRS, indoor residual spraying, which is currently focused on the inside of the house. With the information that we have, we’re thinking that it is worth applying to these outdoor areas.”

This has its own challenges, with the sprays used being susceptible to sunlight, as well as wet weather common in the tropics.

“Sunlight breaks the spray down,” Edgar said. “We have to look at that and the biggest concern is that with verandas they’re sort of half indoors and half outdoors, there could be some areas that might be better suited than others.”

Edgar working by light over a microscope in a dark room.

One of the major breakthroughs in the fight against mosquito-borne disease is the use of the Wolbachia bacteria to counter dengue fever.

The process, which involves infecting mosquitoes with the bacteria to stop them transmitting disease, was created with the help of JCU Researchers.

Unfortunately, this method can’t be applied to the parasitic malaria, a completely different health issue to the viral dengue, albeit one with the same itchy and annoying mode of transmission.

There has been one breakthrough in the treatment of malaria, namely doctors’ ability to detect it.

“In the Solomon Islands over the past couple of years there is a new Rapid Diagnostic Test (RDT) that is being used, which has been proven to detect malaria more consistently. It has a higher detection rate, it’s able to detect low level infection,” Edgar said.

“It’s really important because the quicker we can identify who has malaria, the quicker they can go and get treatment. This reduces the burden on communities. Having technology that is able to identify malaria quickly is really vital.”

The continued prevalence of malaria in tropical areas, especially in his home country the Solomon Islands and sub-Saharan Africa, has given the PhD candidate no cause to let up.Edgar helping set up a mosquito net outdoors in the Solomon Islands.

Insecticide-covered nets are one way to control the insects, but they've led to the disease-carrying mosquitoes changing when they bite.

“It is personal I guess, our country is aiming for malaria to be eliminated by 2030, which is definitely going to be an up-hill battle to achieve,” he said.

“My personal goal is that if I can have a country where my grandchildren don’t have to get malaria that would be really good.”

One of the greatest risks to this goal is funding, with the volume of research usually being proportionate to the prevalence of the disease.

“In the global fight against malaria we’ve just got to be careful not to get complacent. Sometimes when you feel the numbers have gone down you put it on the backburner or reduce the amount of resources that we put towards this fight. As has been documented in a few cases around the world when you do that malaria does come back with a vengeance.”

Thursday, 25th of April is World Malaria Day.

If you want to take on diseases with the potential to impact billions, consider JCU Biomedical Sciences, or postgraduate study.

Published 16 Apr 2020