Colorado State researchers study malaria prevention

Danny Bishop

A common drug already being distributed in West Africa may be instrumental in preventing the spread of malaria.

Researchers at Colorado State University are looking into a new application for a drug that has long been used to fend off parasites in developing countries. Researchers hypothesize the drug can also be used to prevent the spread of the mosquito-borne disease malaria.

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Malaria led to 660,000 fatalities in 2010, 91 percent of which were in the African region, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Brian Foy, principal investigator on the project and associate professor in CSU’s Arthropod-borne and Infectious Disease Laboratory, said it generally takes 10 days for mosquitos to become infectious after being infected by malaria. By increasing the frequency Africans already take ivermectin, it would make human blood poisonous to mosquitos and curb the mosquito population, which would slow the spread of malaria.

“If we give out the drug maybe once a month, we would be shifting the mosquito population structure so mosquitos don’t live 10 days,” Foy said. “If mosquitos can’t live long enough to become infectious, they will cease transmitting malaria.”

Ivermectin has been used in Africa to control parasitic diseases like intestinal worms for 30 years, according to CSU research scientist Haoues Alout.

“The drug has a long history of use in Africa,” Alout said. “Now we have evidence that the drug kills mosquitos from the blood they take in from us. The drug will not kill the parasite or virus (transmitted by mosquitos) but will kill the mosquito.”

The research group recently received a $100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This grant has allowed the group to begin clinical trials in African communities. This is the first time ivermectin has been tested in a clinical trial throughout a whole community for the purpose of preventing the spread of malaria.

“In some villages we are going to hand out the drug more often and other villages will get it as often as they normally would and then we will compare the two,” Foy said.

Foy said ivermectin is generally safe and has long been used to combat diseases like river blindness and Elephantiasis. He said he has taken the drug twice.

“Ivermectin is one of those drugs where you can give it to an entire community without a doctor monitoring,” Foy said. “Community health workers give everyone in the village the drug as long as people are over a certain height.”

Graduate student Ben Krajacich has been researching the effect ivermectin has on mosquito population for three years and has done research in Senegal, Liberia and Burkina Faso.

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“The current tools we have are not enough to eliminate malaria or impact malaria significantly,” Krajacich said. “Ivermectin is a unique tool for control and this unique approach for control compliments current control methods.”

Since ivermectin is already being distributed to African communities to combat other diseases, Krajacich said ivermectin can easily be used to combat malaria as well.

“People have been distributing ivermectin across West Africa for years,” Krajachich said. “We want to increase the rate this is happening, and since there is already infrastructure in place, it makes it a more feasible project.”

Collegian City Beat Reporter Danny Bishop can be reached at news@collegian.com and on Twitter @DannyDBishop.