A new study has provided evidence that a drug that is currently being deployed in countless villages across Sub-Saharan Africa might actually be effective at reducing the transmission of malaria. The drug, ivermectin, has been a powerful tool in the global health armory for many years as the drug of choice in the mass drug administration (MDA) programs against onchocerciasis – or Riverblindess. Working off a hunch, the investigators spent a year sucking mosquitoes out of households in rural Senegal to see what impact ivermectin – notably delivered as part of the regular MDA programs – had upon the transmission of malaria in mosquitoes. Lo and behold they found a relatively large reduction in the prevalence of the malaria parasite in mosquitoes in the ivermectin treated villages and the effect seems to last a few weeks.
Of course no one thinks that this is going to be a silver bullet in the fight against malaria, however, there are a number of remarkable aspects of this finding which are relevant to malaria control programs. First, this is a drug that is cheap and has been widely used across the continent. Literally billions of tablets have been distributed over the years since Merck and the Onchocerciasis Control Program/African Programme on Onchocerciasis Control began distributing the drug. In addition, APOC has also spent many years building up infrastructure – a vast network of community based drug distributors – to help get these drugs to some of the most remote villages on the planet on a shoe string budget. The use of ivermectin in malaria control programs could begin with little new investment.
Second, the drug seems to specifically target the mosquitoes that are biting humans, which might be a useful way of specifically targeting the mosquitoes that transmit malaria. Right now most people only receive ivermectin once or twice a year and this would have to be scaled up for this to become a useful treatment against malaria. The strategy might become a useful complementary tool in areas that have high seasonal spikes in transmission (by the way, there is also evidence that ivermectin can interrupt transmission of onchocerciasis as well).
What should also be said here is that this work had been supported by a Gates Grand Challenges Explorations project – you know those high-risk high-reward funding programs that the Gates Foundation has been touting the past few years. Anyone can apply, the application process is easy, and it is meant to support bold and innovative ideas. The photos that have accompanied the press release for this study shows two very young researchers from Colorado – Brian Foy and Kevin Kobylinski (with a Canadian T-shirt no less) – hard at work aspirating mosquitoes. I don’t know the guys – and although I am sure they are brilliant – but as another junior researcher I know how hard it is to get funding to support early stage work. These guys appear to be exactly the kind of people – with exactly the kind of crazy ideas – that this program was meant to support. So hats off to the Foundation for helping to support this work.Share on Facebook