Last year, scientists stumbled across an ingenious method to tackle malaria. They found that malaria-carrying mosquitos drop dead if they drink the blood of a person that’s recently taken ivermectin, a widely used anti-parasitic drug to treat head lice and scabies.
A new study has tested out whether this intriguing new method can actually stop the spread of malaria outside of the lab. It's still fairly early days for the research, but it’s looking pretty promising so far.
A randomized trial found that the number of childhood malaria episodes could be reduced by 20 percent if the whole population was given a drug called ivermectin every three weeks, as reported in the medical journal The Lancet.
"Ivermectin reduces new cases of malaria by making a person's blood lethal to the mosquitoes who bite them, killing mosquitoes and therefore reducing the likelihood of infection of others,” study author, Dr Brian D Foy of Colorado State University, said in a statement.
“Because ivermectin has a unique mode of action compared to other malaria control insecticides and antimalarial drugs, it could be used alongside drugs that treat malaria to combat residual transmission of the disease."
The study included 2,700 people, 590 of which were children, from eight villages in Burkina Faso during an 18-week period over the 2015 rainy season. Out of the eligible participants, all were given a single dose of ivermectin plus 400mg of an anti-worm medication, while 1,447 people were then given five further three-weekly doses of ivermectin.
The groups that received the extra doses of ivermectin had a 20 percent reduction in malaria episodes per child, falling from 2.49 to 2 cases per child. The number of children who did not catch malaria at all more than doubled in the group that received the drug. There were also very few side-effects from the drugs.
This is a relatively small sample and much of the results were self-reported by the participants, which could introduce biases into the study. While further work is needed before we see this fully rolled out, it's the first proof-of-principle that ivermectin could be used in real-world scenarios to help combat malaria.
Malaria is a tropical disease caused by the Plasmodium parasite that's spread by the bite of an infected mosquito. One of the major hurdles to humanity’s war on malaria is antimalarial drug resistance. After years of declining death rates from malaria, progress is starting to stall due to the malaria parasites developing resistance to artemisinin, one of the most prolific antimalarial drugs. This makes new approaches all the more important.
“Because of mosquitoes' ability to adapt to control tools, new methods of preventing the transmission of malaria are needed, in particular, those that target residual transmission. Ivermectin is well tolerated and widely used so it could be a useful tool in disease reduction if further trials show similar results," added Dr Foy.