Medical historians say that more people have died from malaria than from any other disease in human history. It is estimated that over a million Africans die from malaria each year, a death rate exceeded only during the past quarter century by the AIDS epidemic. In Kenya earlier this year, our ABC7 newsteam went to the front lines in the war against this international killer.
The symptoms are sweating, fever and chills. And if not treated, death is a virtual certainty for young children and pregnant women. It is estimated that malaria will kill a projected 30,000 Kenyans this year and many more people throughout sub-Saharan Africa. After AIDS, it is the continent's most deadly disease.
"We lose approximately a million children under the age of 5 due to complications associated with malaria infection," said Dr. Davy Koech, Kenyan Med. Research Institute.
Dr. Koech is founder and president of the Kenya Medical Research Institute where scientists have as their ultimate goal developing a vaccine to prevent malarial infection.
A human can be infected only after being bitten by the female anopheles mosquito, which carries the parasite that causes malaria. To find out why this one species is host to the parasite, researchers study the insect's DNA.
"We examine, in the chromosome, what makes this mosquito spread the malaria and what makes the don't spread," said Damaris Matoke, research scientist.
Researchers are trying to determine why the malaria parasite has mutated and become resistant to medicine such as quinine. They also are experimenting with African roots and herbs, some of which have been effective.
Illinois Senator Barack Obama says Americans should be aware of and support African efforts to control infection disease.
"What we want to make sure of is that we're dealing with these issues [in Africa] before they get out of hand, and then start getting exported to the United States," said Sen. Barack Obama.
Back at the institute, researchers also test insecticides and say it's well known that a controversial one, DDT, will eradicate the mosquitoes.
"The mosquito lands, or it comes into contact with the insecticide, and it drop dead," said Robert Naranga, researcher.
But the European Union has warned the Kenyan government if it uses DDT, a suspected carcinogen, the EU will ban the import of Kenyan agricultural products.
"It's a very tricky issue," said Dr. Koech. "It is not only scientific. It is more about politics than science and the economy."
It's ironic the Europeans pressure Africans not to use DDT to kill malaria mosquitoes. The insects were eradicated in Europe as well as in the United States by the mid-20th century using DDT. But environmentalists in the West oppose using the insecticide in Africa in the 21st century.