The parasite that causes malaria has been becoming progressively more resistance to the majority of medications over the last few years. Even insecticides are becoming less effective in dealing with the mosquitoes that host and transmit the parasite, making it forever harder to control their numbers in populated areas, say researchers from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.

The scientists are examining and testing plant extracts that have been utilized in traditional African medicine, many of them are targeted at malaria. Their aim is to find supplements and replacements for current conventional medications.

A Norwegian pilot project is indexing and testing plants that may have an effect on the malaria parasite as well as the mosquitoes that carry them.

Malaria, which is caused by Plasmodium falciparum, is transmitted by several mosquito species of the Anopheles genus to humans. Malaria can cause life-threatening fever. In some parts of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa, malaria is a major cause of death, illness and poverty.

Approximately 300 million people get malaria each year, of which at least one million die, the majority of them being children under five. Pregnant mothers are also vulnerable to complications caused by malaria.

Researcher Torunn Stangeland, explains:

“There are several plants that have been shown to kill the malaria parasite. Other plants are toxic to malaria-transmitting mosquitoes and could perhaps be utilised as insecticides.”

These plants have never undergone proper scientific scrutiny for efficacy and safety.

They have started by testing the specific plant extracts on the malaria parasite and mosquitoes. Their next step will be to determine whether any potential toxins are safe to use. Findings so far have been promising, however, the scientists say that it will be a while before any final conclusions can be published.

They also want to determine whether using a whole plant or just a specific compound in it would be better to prevent future resistance by the parasite or mosquito – plants have several different compounds, in varying concentrations.

Dr Stangeland said:

“The fact that both the sweet wormwood plant (Artemisia annua) and the bark of the cinchona tree have been used for centuries against malaria – and the parasite has yet to become resistant – indicates some support for this theory.

If we can find plants that prove effective against malaria. We hope that African authorities and countries will register the tested medicines and produce them themselves.”

Imagine an African herbal medicine, costing a fraction of currently imported ones, replacing some currently used ones, the researchers suggest. Local production of medication would not only be better for health control, it would also provide badly needed jobs.

Dr Stangeland said:

“.. this is only the beginning. We hope the pilot project will lead to a larger, more comprehensive study with clinical tests of the plant-based medicines and insecticides as a main element.”

Written by Christian Nordqvist