Getting back on track: 5 Imperial academics working to end malaria

Imperial Malaria experts

Imperial College London is home to a whole host of academics researching malaria, many of whom are part of IGHI’s Centre for African Research and Engagement.

Devoting so much effort to the cause is a worthy endeavour. As a complex disease, the fight against malaria continues to prove an arduous one. After many years of progress, the number of cases has stagnated since 2015 according to the World Health Organization. Much of Africa continues to bear the burden of malaria and research to curb the disease faces significant challenges going ahead.

World Malaria Day gives us an opportunity to highlight these ongoing issues. In the run-up to the event on 25 April, we spoke to Imperial’s malaria experts about their research and whether a future of controlling and eradicating the disease is in sight.

What inspired you to get involved in malaria research?

Professor Tom WilliamsProfessor Tom Williams
Chair in Haemoglobinopathy Research, Faculty of Medicine

“I wanted to get involved in tropical disease research from a base in the tropics because I’ve always loved the climate! The first break that I got just happened to be to run a project led by Professor Sir David Weatherall. The task was to study the epidemiology of malaria in children with inherited red cell abnormalities in the South Pacific islands of Vanuatu. Who wouldn’t be inspired to keep on studying?!”

Why is malaria such a significant public health concern?

Professor Kath MaitlandProfessor Kath Maitland
Director, Centre for African Research and Engagement

“While malaria has retreated from some parts of Africa, little has changed over the last century across large swathes of sub-Saharan Africa, where malaria remains stubbornly unyielding. Severe and complicated malaria remains a key cause of hospital admission in African children and a major contributor to childhood mortality. The outcome for children remains poor even with the best antimalarial medication. There are large subgroups with complications of severe malaria who are in much need of supportive therapies.”

What measure gives us the most hope for controlling malaria in the future?

Dr Aubrey CunningtonDr Aubrey Cunnington
Clinical Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Medicine

“I’m excited that research funders are increasingly encouraging interdisciplinary and team science approaches to tackling the hardest problems. Malaria has been one of the biggest challenges for humankind throughout our existence and the only way we can defeat malaria is by scientists around the world working together across traditional boundaries to innovate new technological solutions. Technologies using mobile phones for diagnosis, guiding treatment and tracking cases have huge potential because mobile phones are so common in malaria-endemic countries. I’m hopeful that these approaches will allow us to capitalise on gains that have already been made in reducing the burden of malaria over the last two decades.”

How important is global collaboration in tackling malaria?

Dr Lesong Conteh Dr Lesong Conteh
Senior Lecturer in Health Economics, Faculty of Medicine

 “Combating malaria is a global effort. Malaria-endemic countries are at the forefront of the fight, as their health systems and citizens respond to the burden. International donor agencies and the taxpayers who fund them are working with malarious countries to identify the best investments. Private philanthropists, researchers and NGOs also have key roles in developing and delivering effective interventions. To have an impact on malaria we need to coordinate globally, plan nationally and act locally.”

What is the biggest challenge facing malaria in 2019? 

Dr Jake BaumProfessor Jake Baum
Professor of Cell Biology and Infectious Diseases, Faculty of Natural Sciences 

“The world malaria and global health community have made amazing progress in reducing malaria death and disease over the last 10 years, but progress has stalled. Is this a temporary blip or a sign that things might get worse again? How do we reverse this stall, especially if it signals a rise in malaria incidence in the coming years? We don’t have an effective vaccine and drug resistance is on the rise. Our greatest challenge is probably innovation — how do we come up with game-changing ideas that not only get the global malaria community back on track to further reducing global malaria incidence, but actually move us towards the long-dreamt world without malaria?”



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