Fighting malaria is fighting poverty

20 May 2022

Diseases that spread across the globe come and go, but malaria has been around for thousands of years. The number of people affected by the disease is on the rise and it hits lower-income countries the hardest. So how can we fight malaria, and what will it bring to the world if we manage to do so? Koen Dechering, CEO of TropIQ Health Sciences, explains why more needs to be done and how his company contributes to eradicating the disease once and for all.

“You can only develop yourself when you’re healthy”, says Koen. With that statement, he touches upon the two most important aspects of malaria: health and economic development. “In essence, we are fighting poverty. When you are suffering from malaria, you can’t go to school or work. Social connections are harder to maintain and you become poorer. This in turn makes you more vulnerable to other diseases.” The organization malaria No More puts this into numbers: malaria-free countries have five times as much economic growth as countries that are still fighting the disease.

It hits everyone
Malaria hits lower-income countries the hardest, as more people get infected and suffer the direct consequences of the disease. But the rest of the world suffers as well, says Koen. “The cycle of health and economic status has an impact far beyond the countries with the most cases of malaria. If countries are hindered in their development due to the disease, this has a negative effect on trade around the world. In addition to that, we see a lot of economic refugees from countries that are hit hard by malaria.” And after years of declining infection rates, the numbers are on the rise again. “At the moment, about 700.000 people per year die of malaria.”

That’s why Koen and TropIQ have developed a medicine that works with just one pill. “Many of the existing medication is based on a series of pills, which people don’t want, or forget to take.” To make sure their medicine is not only valuable in terms of people’s health, but an affordable option as well, it costs less than one euro per dose.

What are we up against?
Malaria, like all other vector-borne diseases, is not passed on between humans. “In the case of malaria, mosquitos transmit the disease. Their bite leaves saliva which contains malaria parasites. These find their way to the liver, reproduce there and then infect red blood cells.” The fact that malaria is vector-borne, makes it more complicated to eradicate the disease. “Finding a cure for people is not enough in itself, because then we are left with mosquitos that are still infectious. That’s why we have to look at solutions to the mosquito problem at the same time.

In terms of finding solutions, the covid pandemic has unexpectedly proven to help the fight against malaria. “On the one hand, the pandemic meant that a lot of funding moved away from research toward finding solutions for malaria. But at the same time, people showed more interest in infectious diseases and the science behind them. We heard the Dutch prime minister explain a bit of science on live tv!” This in turn meant that new types of vaccines could be developed at a higher pace. “We are participating in the development of mRNA vaccines against malaria, a technique first used for covid vaccines.”

Promising ideas and technologies
Besides participating in promising developments, TropIQ has been busy finding innovative solutions by themselves. They were recently awarded a more than a million-dollar grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for their work. “With funding like that, we are able to do research to find creative solutions to the malaria problem. One of the things we do is use computer models to find substances that impact the mosquito’s ability to smell. We even found some that influence their behaviour, making them simply fly away.” Modern technology might make it easier for TropIQ to find and test these solutions. “The results of AI in health are spectacular. Especially when testing, this technology has an enormously positive effect on our processes. Testing is usually a painstaking process with a 0.1 percent chance of finding something that works. With the help of AI – which searches big piles of data for the perfect match – we are at a hit rate of 15 percent.”

The prospect of finding effective solutions has thus become brighter, but there are still challenges to overcome. “We definitely need a vaccine, but when we have one, the transport is another issue we have to take care of. There are large areas where a Coca-Cola truck finds its way every week, but not the nurse with vaccines.” Once the vaccine is ready to be used, there is still enough to do for TropIQ. “Even if we end up finding and applying both medication and vaccines for malaria, our work isn’t done. There are other diseases with massive impact. Like Dengue, for which there is no vaccine or medicine at the moment.” The worldwide efforts to find solutions do offer some reason for optimism, some of which will be worked on right here on Novio Tech Campus. “TropIQ is loaded with good ideas, but funding remains crucial to turn them into real solutions, ” says Koen.