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MUTATED PARASITE: Malaria is caused by Plasmodium parasites, which are spread to people through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes. Photo via The Star


Individuals who carry the sickle cell trait, a condition in which red blood cells are abnormally shaped, have always been highly protected against severe malaria.

However, new research by the Kenya Medical Research Institute shows the malaria parasite has adapted to overcome this protection.

The study, published in Nature, found variants of the malaria parasites that have evolved to infect and cause serious disease in people who carry sickle haemoglobin.

“In this study, we searched for an association between candidate host and parasite genetic variants in 3,346 Gambian and Kenyan children ascertained with severe malaria due to Plasmodium falciparum,” the researchers said.

They found that malaria in children with sickle cell tended to be caused by a certain type of mutated parasite.

The researchers suggested that the sickle cell trait may have applied pressure on the plasmodium parasite over time, forcing it to adapt.

This led to a variant that can now infect people with sickle cell as well as those with normal red blood cells.

“We identified a strong association between sickle haemoglobin in the host and three regions of the parasite genome, that is not explained by population structure or other covariates, and that is replicated in additional samples,” the researchers said.

The study is titled "Malaria protection due to sickle haemoglobin depends on parasite genotype."

The researchers are from Kemri-Wellcome Trust Research Programme, Wellcome Sanger Institute, the University of Oxford, the MRC Unit The Gambia at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), along with collaborators from the US and Mali.

The scientists said this is the first time this phenomenon has been observed in a study and further research is needed to understand the biological mechanisms behind this.

Prof Tom Williams, a senior fellow at Kemri, said, “Previously, sickle haemoglobin was believed to have a protective effect against severe disease.

"However, this study highlights the importance of continually investigating this parasite so that we can be informed about how it adapts against selective pressures.”

Normal blood cells are disc-shaped while sickle cells are irregularly shaped. Individuals carrying just one copy of the sickle cell can lead normal lives and do not develop sickle cell anaemia.

Past research has confirmed these individuals are highly protected against severe malaria. This explained the high prevalence of sickle cell in geographical areas where malaria is endemic, such as western Kenya.

The sickle-shaped cells have porous membranes that leak nutrients that the malaria parasites need to survive and reproduce. The immune system then clears the infected cells before the parasite can complete its life cycle and infect other red blood cells.

Individuals, therefore, tend to get milder forms of malaria rather than the life-threatening kind that can afflict people with normal blood cells.

But from the Kemri study, the defiant malaria parasites are now overcoming this protection.

The researchers said understanding how this happens could lead to new ways to protect against and treat malaria.

“Greater clarity on the ways that P. falciparum evades the human body’s defences could lead to new opportunities for protecting against malaria and treating those living in the most affected areas,” Prof David Conway, the study author and professor of biology at LSHTM, said in a statement. - John Muchangi, The Star

(Edited by Bilha Makokha)

Kigali, Rwanda. Photo via Jacolene/iStock/Getty Images Plus


Government officials representing the African nation of Rwanda have announced changes to its COVID-19 protocols for arriving international travelers.

All arriving airline passengers must quarantine for 24 hours at a designated hotel while waiting for results from the mandatory PCR coronavirus test administered upon arrival in the country’s capital city, Kigali.

The mandatory quarantine period has been shortened from three days to 24 hours.

In addition, travelers must take a second PCR test on the third day in Rwanda at their own cost at designated testing sites, and quarantining tourists will be responsible for the cost of the period in an approved hotel.

International visitors will need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of departure for the country and then take the second test administered at Kigali International Airport.

The coronavirus-related requirements apply to all travelers, regardless of vaccination status, and other safety protocols also remain in place throughout the country.

Rwanda reopened to international travel on November 5 and announced a series of updated entry protocols to battle the Omicron variant.

For the latest travel news, updates, and deals, be sure to subscribe to the daily TravelPulse newsletter. - DONALD WOOD, TravelPulse

Egypt sends medical aid to Tanzania. Photo Ahram Online


Two military aircraft took off from East Cairo military base to Tanzania carrying tons of medical aid Thursday, the Egyptian Armed Forces announced.

According to the Egyptian Armed Forces, the Egyptian Ministry of Health and Population provided the aid within the framework of Egypt's constant support to the African peoples amid crises.

The provision of aid aims to alleviate burdens on the Tanzanian citizens as per President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi's directives, the statement by the Egyptian Armed Forces said. - Ahmed Eleiba, Ahram Online

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