From insect-repellent socks to potential new drugs from local plants, the University of Pretoria’s Institute for Sustainable Malaria Control (UP ISMC) is turning up the heat on the deadly disease this World Malaria Day.

Malaria is a constant scourge in the north-western parts of our country and further north into Africa. Caused by the Plasmodium parasite and transmitted by female Anopheles mosquitoes, malaria is a particular threat in Africa. In 2017, 93% of all malaria deaths occurred on this continent.

The UP ISMC aims to help prevent and eliminate malaria in South Africa by 2030, in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The institute takes a multi-pronged approach to malaria elimination and control: treating the parasitic infection, stopping the mosquito and understanding and managing the health of threatened populations. Here are a few actions that UP ISMC researchers are taking to help.

Mosquito-repelling socks

Malaria-carrying mosquitoes tend to bite ankles and feet, so Dr Mtokozisi Sibanda has come up with an ingenious plan: socks with built-in repellent. He has created a thread that holds a common insect repellent and releases it very slowly over time. The thread is used to knit socks which can be washed without losing their effectiveness and may last for up to eight months. The socks are marketed through his company African Applied Chemical.

Tapping into indigenous knowledge for new drugs

Malaria treatments may not always come out of multi-million dollar pharmaceutical companies or first-world research institutions. In fact, UP ISMC researchers are looking at homegrown indigenous knowledge. They have found that extracts and specific compounds from African wormwood (Artemisia afra), also known as Wilde als, can slow down the malaria symptoms and the disease transmission. This research is ongoing as the search for more effective drugs continues.

Collaborating with universities across the country to develop potent new drugs

Modern drug development is an expensive and complex process. That’s why the UP ISMC is part of a multi-university collaboration that discovers, develops and tests promising new compounds for malaria treatment.

Prof Lyn-Marie Birkholtz of the UP ISMC heads up the South African Malaria Transmission-blocking Consortium, which focuses on drugs that target more than one stage of the parasite’s life cycle, to treat the disease while preventing transmission to others.

Teaching learners a song about malaria

Stopping malaria isn’t just about killing mosquitoes or developing expensive new drugs. Community education plays a vital role as well. “We’re taking an integrated approach of health promotion and education to get our message across,” says Prof Tiaan de Jager, director of the UP ISMC. “We’ve published a book called Sibo fights Malaria, we’re using drama performances in rural areas, and music as a way to talk to our communities.”

Studying human skin to trap mosquitoes

Our skin produces a wide range of chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that mosquitoes smell. UP researchers hope to use this in two ways related to malaria. Firstly, they hope to find the VOCs that attract mosquitoes and use them in mosquito bait traps. Secondly, they hope to develop a quick and non-invasive test for malaria working on the fact that people with malaria have a different VOC profile to those without the disease. This could help pick up malaria infections in the very early stages.

Studying insecticides that work in cattle

“Outdoor control of malaria is becoming more important, especially as we are moving towards integrated vector management and elimination,” says de Jager.

A recent masters project at the UP ISMC has shown that treatments to kill ticks and other parasites in cattle can also kill mosquitoes, and severely limit their reproduction by reducing the larvae produced. This research is in its very early stages, but de Jager believes that it hasa some potential for future mosquito control.

“This is an additional tool in our toolbox to reduce the number of malaria cases in South Africa.” University of Pretoria