Global burden of vector-borne diseases the focus of World Health Day 2014

Burnet Institute

07 April, 2014

Co-Head of Burnet's Centre for Biomedical Research, Professor James Beeson

At this year’s AMREP World Health Day Forum in Melbourne there was consensus of opinion - tackling the unpredictability and deadly impact of vector-borne diseases makes it an incredibly difficult challenge but a crucial one for our region.

Each year more than one million people die from vector-borne diseases. This includes more than 660,000 people, mainly young children, who die from the deadliest form, malaria, transmitted by a single mosquito bite.

Leading Australian experts addressed many of the key issues and priorities for our region at today’s event including disease control, vaccines, new therapeutics and drug resistance, as well as emerging diseases.

Burnet Institute Director and CEO, Professor Brendan Crabb revealed that 20 per cent of the world’s burden of illness and disability is caused by malaria.

“It is the result, and cause, of poverty,” Professor Crabb said. “Malaria has an enormous impact on families too apart from death and sickness, including hindering employment and schooling, and economic development.”

Vector-borne diseases – infectious diseases transmitted by arthropods - include malaria, dengue fever and many other mosquito-borne viral infections, leishmania, filariasis, trypanosomiasis and tick-borne infections.

Whilst the global response to malaria has reduced rates of morbidity over the past decade, the emergence of drug resistance in Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand to frontline malaria drugs is causing concern.

Head of Burnet’s Malaria Epidemiology Group, Dr Freya Fowkes, said, “unregulated use of antimalarial drugs and ineffective doses (counterfeit drugs) are just two of the factors contributing to drug resistance against frontline drugs (such as artemisinin) in Western Cambodia.”

Plasmodium falciparum was regularly exposed to artemisinin without the disease being wiped out because the strongest parasites survived.”

Plasmodium falciparum, causes most clinical cases and deaths globally, however P. vivax is a second important cause of malaria and causes a high burden of disease in Asia and the Pacific region.

The lack of an effective malaria vaccine was highlighted by Burnet’s Co-Head of the Centre for Biomedical Research, Professor James Beeson.

“The most advanced vaccine currently under stage three of human trials in Africa, is showing a disappointing efficacy rate and length of effectiveness,” Professor Beeson said.

“The studies are showing only a 30-50 per cent efficacy rate and a duration of two years. This vaccine also only addresses Plasmodium falciparum and not P. vivax malaria which is the most prevalent in our region.”

Burnet’s Geoffrey Chan who is based in the Centre for International Health, outlined the effectiveness of a three-year Home Management of Malaria (HMM) project underway in East New Britain, Papua New Guinea that is promoting community-based diagnosis and treatment of malaria.

Mr Chan explained that while there is evidence for the effectiveness of HMM in Africa, there is little research in malaria prone sites elsewhere. The PNG project is seeking to address that.

To find out more about Burnet’s work in vector-borne diseases, particularly malaria click here.