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‘Insidious’ disease could find its way to Australia

Published: (Updated: ) in Australian News by .

The disease is found in more than 100 countries. Approximately 600,000 people are infected every day, and it’s estimated that 1,200 children die each day from it.  

When her only son was just six weeks old, Benishar Kombut was forced to helplessly watch as he sweated profusely and his eyes rolled back in his head.

The Papua New Guinea woman knew instantly what was wrong. Tapia had come down with a silent killer, a disease that she herself had fought more than five times: malaria.

The mosquito-borne illness attacks the liver and red blood cells. It kills hundreds of thousands every year.

Plasmodium falciparum, one of the five parasites that causes malaria, shown growing in human red blood cells.

The family rushed Tapia to a local clinic where he received treatment. If they had not, there was chance he would have died – it's estimated that 1200 children die each day from the disease.

"We are doing our best in preventing him from getting another episode," Ms Kombut told

"He's now three, and is not affected by the bout he got. I first got malaria when I was seven, and have had it over five times since. Usually, it causes me to become bedridden for two to three days and I can hardly do anything and enjoy time with my family."

Ms Kombut has dedicated her life to eradicating the disease, and alongside award-winning Australian scientist and Director and CEO of Burnet Institute, Professor Brendan Crabb, she has made inroads in that fight.

One of the world's biggest killers

However, malaria is as insidious as it comes. The disease is found in more than 100 countries – usually through the tropics. Approximately 600,000 people are infected every day, and it's estimated that over half of the world's population is at risk.

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Malaria transmission occurs in five WHO regions.Malaria was listed as one of the Top 10 causes of death in low-income countries in 2016.

"We still don't have that magic-bullet vaccine, but we're much closer to it now," Professor Crabb told

"I've had malaria twice myself as I grew up in PNG, while you can kill the parasite once you've gotten it, the recovery time can be huge. My two cases were easily month-long recovery times – no school, no work."

Professor Crabb said that malaria is part of a group of diseases that keep people poor.

"Imagine my day off school and work – multiplied by 600,000 across just the tropics. You can't break out of that cycle, it keeps whole nations poor due to lost productivity. Malaria can be incredibly debilitating."

Naomi (11yrs) walked a whole day through the jungle with her aunt (also Naomi) to get treatment for cerebral malaria at what remains of Arawa Hospital in Papua New Guinea where they treat 140 patients a day.

The fight against malaria

This year, Professor Crabb was awarded the prestigious 2019 GSK Award for Research Excellence. He's been leading the charge to find the next generation of treatments and vaccines for malaria.

Professor Crabb was involved in the technical breakthrough of DNA "transfection" of the malaria parasite.

Transfection is a tool that enables scientists to manipulate the genome of the parasite. By tweaking the parasite's DNA, scientists can discover which mutations are responsible for drug resistance and what parts can be targeted by new medicines and vaccines.

"After winning the award I felt tremendously positive that there was a focus on a group of people who are poor and suffer and are largely invisible," he said.

Professor Brendan Crabb with the 2019 GSK Award for Research Excellence.

"We in Australia don't recognise malaria – I'm not sure why we don't, because the human tragedy is immense. Imagine the 1,2000 families today that lost their children. It's happening on our doorstep - through PNG, the Solomon Islands and more."

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One of the issues in treating malaria to date, is that in some regions some drugs work, while in others they don't.

"It's because the parasites can develop a resistance, so then you have to change the drug you use. You have to keep developing new drugs," Professor Crabb said.

"It may seem a long road but the scale of malaria and the scale of the problem is worth considering. It's probably the biggest health problem humans have ever faced."

How malaria could spread to Australia

Malaria used to be found in the Northern Territory, but effective treatment and prompt diagnosis, meant the region was declared malaria-free in 1981.

While mainland Australia is currently free from the disease, the region of northern Australia above 19° S latitude is said to still be in the receptive zone for malaria transmission.

This 2003 photo provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a female Aedes albopictus mosquito acquiring a blood meal from a human host. (James Gathany/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Approximately 700-800 cases occur throughout the nation each year, due to travellers visiting other infected countries. However, with a warming climate Professor Crabb said there is a possibility malaria could become endemic in Australia.

"There's a threat of mosquito-borne diseases going anywhere that gets hotter and wetter. The climate is obviously changing and we're seeing mosquitoes go to different places. We're already seeing mosquitoes that were once not at a certain altitude in the tropics, going up higher in the mountains."

"I felt tremendously positive that there was a focus on a group of people who are poor and suffer and are largely invisible."

Contact Raffaella Ciccarelli:

Source: 9News

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