The article below was contributed by journalist Ntaryike Divine Jr. (Douala, Cameroon) as part of the SjCOOP project in collaboration with MalariaWorld.
Over the years malaria has remained unwavering in its ravages, killing hundreds of thousands worldwide yearly, defying drugs and sapping household coffers of hard-earned income.
The disease, prevalent in the tropics is transmitted via bites of female bloodsucking anopheles mosquitoes infected with parasites of the genus Plasmodium. Of the five plasmodium species, research has proven that P. falciparum is particularly dangerous.
It causes the most severe form of malaria, cerebral malaria, in which infected red blood cells go to hide in deep-lying blood vessels and preferably those in the brain. They eventually impair blood circulation; provoke seizures, agitation, psychosis, diminished consciousness, coma and even death.
But what has apparently eluded researchers all these years is the fact that children with cerebral malaria and considered treated, leave hospital with lifelong afflictions. And curiously, this fresh insight is not trickling from conventional medical research institutions, but from psychologists.
“Yes. Psychology is unveiling pathways for better therapy for the damage caused by cerebral malaria. We’ve found out that over a quarter of children who survive cerebral malaria remain stuck with neurocognitive impairment which affects their functioning within society and their ability to acquire knowledge,” Professor Charles Newton disclosed mid-July during a presentation at the 21st International Association of Cross-cultural Psychology conference that held July 17-22 in Stellenbosch, South Africa.
The Head of Kenya’s Kilifi Clinical Research on Central Nervous System infections in children additionally advanced that brain damage resulting from cerebral malaria may improve over time, but will never go away completely. In the worst cases it may even result in epilepsy, he stated.
Meanwhile, the exact cause of brain damage in cerebral malaria patients remains unknown. Speculatively, it is thought to be associated with repeated seizures and high blood pressure within the brain.
According to Professor Newton, further research is necessary to pinpoint the mechanisms that culminate in brain injury. “What we’d like to do is to try and understand the mechanisms to prevent the brain damage that occurs from malaria in children so they are left with a better life,” he said.
His work is attracting attention across Africa with malaria researchers in Malawi, Uganda, the DR Congo, Nigeria and Gambia banking on his findings to deepen their probes. They believe the probe will culminate in new and better therapies for cerebral malaria which infects some 500 million worldwide yearly.
Nonetheless, experts say the absence of psychologists and especially cross-cultural psychology research institutions across Africa is a huge impediment to similar research ventures on the continent.
“Basically, to be able to do psychological research you not only need specialists who understand the cultural contexts but also a critical mass and I think the input of psychologists in understanding the impacts of malaria in Africa is very crucial,” Amina Bubakar Ali of the Department of Cross-Cultural Psychology at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands concluded.