Updated: Jun 20, 2018
Malaria is a worldwide tropical disease that puts at risk about half the world’s population with the poorest nations being the most vulnerable. To make matters worse malaria is growing resistant to the available drugs. It is estimated that each year 350–500 million cases of malaria occur worldwide, and it is further estimated that of those between one to three million people die, most of them young children. The vast majority of malaria and malaria deaths occurs in sub-Saharan Africa followed at a distance by India and Brazil.
Orthodox medicine provides us some understanding of how the disease is transmitted. In a nutshell, when a mosquito bites a person with malaria the mosquito drinks infected blood. The malaria parasite (plasmodium falciparum) is easily transmitted to a new host when she bites again. Once inside the new host the parasites enters red blood cells and destroys them.
The bodies immune system initiates complex and strong response such as malarias’ characteristic high fevers and chills. Many of the cyclical phases the disease engenders are poorly understood. This is especially true with the most severe form of the illness, cerebral malaria (where the brain is undergoing sudden and severe changes).
Orthodox treatment is limited to pharmacological prevention and treatment protocols with supportive care as needed. To date all modern treatments may or may not be effective and no drug prevention protocol provides 100% protection. In the worst case scenarios physicians are left to merely manage the progression of the disease as best as they can.
It is interesting to note that malaria was once endemic in the US (eradicated only by 1951), in Poland by 1956. in Japan by 1961, on Taiwan by 1964, in Italy by 1970, or on Aneityum (South-Sea island belonging to Vanuatu) by 1996. Key to eradication in all these cases was not a drug but a basic care for nature and the environment such as underground plumbing, clean public water supplies, wastewater treatments, basic public health measures, and minimal environmental stewardship.
But, back to remedies. A quick look at the history of malaria treatments will point out nature’s continuous supportive role in preventing and saving lives.
Once first contact was made in the 15th Century, European invaders and missionaries quickly learned from local shamans. Initially, only one remedy emerged. The bitter tasting bark of cinchona. However, over time the parasite developed resistance.
19th century researchers took their molecular cue from the trees constituents and developed the first pharmaceutical (quinine) mirroring the plant power over the parasite but with enough of a difference to overcome resistance.
Few new pharmaceutical remedies have been developed since. And, over time each drug is rendered weaker and weaker as parasite resistance grows.
It wasn’t until much later (or millions of deaths later) that another gift from nature shifted the horrific toll on humanity. Enter a demure shrub, sweet wormwood (artemisia annua). The plant was studied in modern times by Tu Youyou a Chinese scientist influenced by Traditional Chinese Medicine where the herb has been used to treat fever for Millenia. She discovered the compound artemisinin that is now the basis for malaria treatment options. In 2015 she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her discovery which is credited with saving untold lives.
Still, as resistance is growing again new and safe treatments need to be urgently found. Luckily, nature provides us yet again with another potent possibility.
This time researchers from Brazil, responding to this urgent need, have discovered that Cannabidiol (CBD), the non-psychoactive compound of cannabis with known neuroprotective properties has the capacity to reduce inflammation of the brain during cerebral malaria.
CBN was also found to prevent memory loss and anxiety commonly associated with this phase of the disease. The experiment was conducted on mice and while human trial are still to be conducted it is good to know that new, safe, and natural treatment options may be forthcoming.
Campos AC, Brant F, Miranda AS, Machado FS, Teixeira AL. Cannabidiol increases survival and promotes rescue of cognitive function in a murine model of cerebral malaria. Neuroscience. 2015 Mar 19;289:166-80.