UCI professor receives $4.7M for malaria research

IRVINE — Close to half of the world's population risks contracting malaria on a daily basis.

Although Africa ranks among the most dangerous regions for the illness, Southeast Asia has some of the strongest strains of malaria, which are growing increasingly resistant to drugs.

This week it was announced that UC Irvine public health Professor Guiyan Yan received a $4.7 million grant from the National Institute of Infectious Diseases for malaria research in China, Myanmar and Thailand. The award is part of a seven-year, $14.5 million grant given to Pennsylvania State University. Yan plans to collaborate with Penn State's primary researcher, Liwang Cui, on the project.

Every year, about 850,000 people die from the mosquito-borne disease and 240 million cases are contracted annually, according to a news release from UCI. Passed through the female mosquito, after biting an infected person the insect takes the parasite-ridden blood and passes the disease on through its next bite.

Malaria, when treated immediately, usually only results in a fever or headache but more severe cases can be fatal. Although the United States licked the disease in the 1950s, it remains an epidemic in Africa, Asia and South America.

Africa is known for a high incidence number and only one strain of the disease, but Asia is one of the only areas to develop multiple strains.

China alone is battling at least two strains. A plant-based cure, called artemisinin, has been effective in China for years. However, researchers are noticing that the strains are becoming increasingly resistant to the drug. Yan and Cui hope to investigate these separate strains and eventually develop a viable cure for the human populations.

Tropical climates are especially important to investigate, such as those in Thailand and Myanmar, since mosquitoes are attracted to humid environments with vegetation, according to the research proposal. The tribal people of these regions, such as the Wa, Shan, Kachin and Karen, are experiencing high malaria transmission due to their remote and mountainous location. Research on the indigenous groups will give a peek into the broad scope of the disease in Southeast Asia, where many of the people affected do not have access to health care.

The team also plans to gather data that is sometimes ignored, such as from transients, refugees and Chinese residents that live near the edges of Myanmar, in order to get a balanced look at the effects of the disease on the region. These border people are especially important due to their migratory status, making them easy transmitters of the disease and nearly impossible to track.

As of now, Yan is in rugged regions of remote China, exploring possible research sites for the upcoming project.

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