WASHINGTON — Researchers at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research here are discovering new ways to combat and prevent the spread of malaria.
“Every conflict the U.S. has been in we’ve been faced with malaria,” said Army Col. Christian Ockenhouse, director of the U.S. Military Malaria Vaccine Program, during an April 14 interview on the Pentagon Channel podcast “Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military.
Malaria is a parasitic disease which infects red blood cells, Ockenhouse said. It’s transmitted through the bite of a female mosquito, goes to the liver to develop and emerges after five days into the bloodstream to cause the disease.
Most people believe malaria is a disease of the past, but it has not disappeared, he said. In sub-Saharan Africa, 3,000 children die every day from the disease, he noted, which also can target adults, including U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan, South America and Africa.
In the military, malaria impacts readiness and missions, and measures are implemented to combat the disease, Ockenhouse said. Using insect repellant and camouflage face paint with repellent in it, wearing uniforms impregnated with insecticides and employing bed nets can help to prevent malaria.
One of the important measures to prevent the disease is taking anti-malaria pills. This pill regime is one of the most effective preventative methods, Ockenhouse said, but it has to be performed daily. “Often time soldiers forget or don’t take it if they don’t see any symptoms,” he said.
The researchers are working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in three areas to protect servicemembers and children against malaria. First, they are developing a highly safe, highly effective vaccine. A second area is to develop better diagnostics, which would allow earlier detection and treatment of the malaria parasite in the blood. Third, they are developing new anti-malarial drugs to prevent infection and treat those that have it.
The researchers also are developing a medication for severe malaria. Ockenhouse spoke of an in-house program designed not only for early-stage research and development, but also to test new drugs against malaria in late-stage clinical trials intended for FDA approval.
The group also works overseas with laboratories located in Kenya, Thailand, Tanzania, Mali, South America and Peru.
“We are ambassadors in the countries where we work. We are there to lend assistance to their public health initiatives, which includes helping these countries test malaria vaccines, drugs and diagnostics and aiding in infrastructure and capacity development.”
The researchers also have assisted in the development of the world’s most advanced malaria vaccine that is being tested in 16,000 infants in 11 different countries. Preliminary studies indicate that use of the vaccine can reduce malaria by 50 percent. When licensed and made available the vaccine could save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of children’s lives, Ockenhouse said.
“We are at the forefront of many endeavors in drugs and vaccines,” Ockenhouse said. “The DoD should be particularly proud that it is stepping up to the plate and leading the world’s efforts on this disease.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)