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No mosquito, no malaria?

Mon, 07/18/2011 - 11:09am

By Mary Sakacs

 

Mosquitoes are generally known as the sneaky pest that creeps up and bites, leaving you with an itchy bump on the surface of your skin. A nuisance to be sure, but in some areas of the world, they can be dangerous because the bugs carry malaria.

 

Malaria is an exceptionally harmful disease that causes infection within the red blood cells which can lead a human to endure headache, fever, and to coma or death. It is particularly prevalent in areas where mosquitoes are very widespread such as tropical regions. However, according to a recent article in The New York Times, a pill commonly used in Africa to prevent river blindness (a parasitic disease, caused by a roundworm that spreads from person to person), has been discovered to be the cure to killing mosquitoes.

 

Scientists declare that when a person ingests the pill and a mosquito later bites them, the mosquito will die. Imagine that!

 

The drug known as ivermectin may seem like a great way for protection from mosquitoes, yet there are some concerns. For one, it will only work effectively if nearly everyone in the area consumes the pills at the same time. Since the mosquito-killing effect fades out after a month, this can be difficult for villagers to organize. More importantly though, a study conducted in a few villages in Africa by The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene proved that the drug was only shortening the lives of the insect. Because the insects can only pass on malaria after getting it from humans first, they tend to already be on the older side, therefore shortening the carrier’s life is not particularly useful.

 

Scientists from Senegal and Colorado State University performed an experiment where they vacuumed mosquitoes off the walls of huts in three villages where people residing in them had taken ivermectin. They also repeated this step in three huts where the villagers had not. They then tested to see how many mosquitoes contained malaria parasites. The results showed that the ivermectin villages had almost 80 percent fewer mosquitoes carrying malaria. The drug was only shortening the lives of the insect. Brian D. Foy, a Colorado State mosquito expert, explained how this was not useful because only older insects transmit malaria, due to the fact that they must get it from humans first. Therefore, the pill may not be very helpful after all.

 

This seems a bit tricky, but you might as well take the pill just in case to provide some potential protection, right?

 

Maybe not. According to Dr. Lee Hall of the National Institutes of Health, ivermectin is not safe for some. He claims that the drug can be dangerous for people who are infected by a large amount of the rare West African worm known as loa loa. For those to carry the worm, ivermectin can be fatal.

 

Loa loa worms travel through the blood and to the lungs where they can die, leaving the person infected and potentially leading to coma or death. The only way to know if you have the worm is by getting your blood drawn and having it looked at by a doctor.

 

Clearly, ivermectin may seem like a great malaria protections solution by killing off its carrier. But further research is needed due to potential negative side effects. Unfortunately, there’s no absolute answer to whether the drug should be taken, but this discovery proves the power of off-label use of drugs. Who knows? Maybe there’s a pill out there for curing head aches that could also be a human time bomb for bees!

Mary Sakacs is a student at Fairleigh Dickinson University majoring in Communications studies. She is currently an editorial intern at Bioscience Technology.

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