Malaria elimination ‘within reach’ for Vietnam

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While Australians take the 25th of April to remember the sacrifice made by our ANZAC soldiers, other parts of the world reflect on those affected by malaria on that same day.

World Malaria Day on April 25 holds particular importance for the people of Vietnam who hope to completely eliminate malaria in by the year 2030.

Tran Nguyen Hung, the head of entomology at the National Institute of Malariology, Parasitology and Entomology (NIMPE) in Ho Chi Minh City, contracted malaria himself while working in the field.

At just 31, the young entomologist contracted malaria as he was collecting data in the forests of Vietnam, prime mosquito habitat.

“I could not work for a week and had to get treatment,” Mr Hung says.

Slowly removing his glasses, he reflects on the effect malaria took on him.

“The symptoms of malaria include having a high fever but still feeling very cold inside, and even if you use something to make you feel warmer, like blankets, you still feel very cold,” Mr Hung says.

He pauses. “I don’t go to the high malaria areas anymore.”

This experience makes World Malaria Day particularly meaningful for Mr Hung.

“The [Vietnamese] Ministry of Health holds World Malaria Day each year and we choose the province which has the highest rate of malaria and have a meeting there,” Mr Hung says.

“We will have the leader of the Ministry of Health there and the representatives from malaria institutes from all over the country.”

Mr Hung explains how the malaria parasite effects humans

Mr Hung explains how the malaria parasite effects humans.

The annual meeting aims to educate people in the worst affected areas of Vietnam about malaria prevention and also offers free medical treatment to those effected.

“I think World Malaria Day is really important because it is a day for the whole world to communicate and a day to educate people.”

Inside NIMPE headquarters. Photo by Anna Hartley.

Inside NIMPE headquarters.

Professor Maxine Whittaker, the Director of the Australian Centre for International and Tropical Health at the University of Queensland (UQ), lived and worked in Vietnam for 10 years and has seen the devastation caused by malaria first hand.

“The worst case would be when you have families that have lost two or three of their infants. That hurts,” Prof. Whittaker says.

“Malaria itself kills but it also creates vulnerability to lots of other infections.”

“For every child that dies of malaria there is another two, two-and-a-half, who malaria has made more vulnerable to other infections so … it’s a major disease, it’s a major killer.” – Professor Maxine Whittaker.

Prof. Whittaker also recognises the economic toll that malaria has on Asian nations such as Vietnam.

“Even if people survive malaria, you’re anaemic so you’ve got no energy,” Prof. Whittaker says.

“You can’t work, parents can’t earn enough money to put food on the table, mothers have difficulty in childbirth, so there’s an economic problem and countries that can eliminate malaria can then economically grow.”

Mr Hung agrees that malaria elimination would mean significant improvement to the Vietnamese economy and to the lives of working families.

“Malaria affects people’s health very seriously; if you get malaria you have no ability to work anymore,” Mr Hung says.

“If you stay in high malaria areas it’s easy to get infected again and again and this can be a burden on your family.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that malaria deaths in Vietnam have plummeted by 91 per cent in the last decade in and reported cases of malaria have also dropped by 85 per cent.

Through her work with the Asia Pacific Malaria Organisation (APMEN) Prof. Whittaker has seen the significant progress Vietnam has made in decreasing the rates of malaria and hopes the goal of elimination by 2030 can be achieved.

Tran Nguyen Hung, Head of Entomology at the National Institute of Malaria, Parasitology, and Entomology (NIMPE) works with APMEN. Photo by Anna Hartley.

Tran Nguyen Hung, Head of Entomology at the National Institute of Malaria, Parasitology, and Entomology (NIMPE) works with APMEN.

“Finally we have all the technologies and drugs and commitments to getting rid of this,” Prof. Whittaker says.

“Malaria is something within 10 to 15 years you could see [eliminated]in the Asia Pacific.”

“If we take our foot off the accelerator now, if we don’t help finish it, [malaria]will come back and we’ve got the evidence that that will happen.”

Doctor Tom Burkot, a researcher for the Queensland Tropical Health Alliance in Cairns, believes that while elimination is possible, the target of 2030 may be too soon.

“Vietnam has some significant challenges to overcome,” Dr Burkot says.

“They’ve done a great job in bringing malaria down.

“But going from having highly effective control to going to elimination requires a lot more resources, a lot more technical expertise.”

Mosquitos carrying the malaria parasite are kept for analysis.. Photo by Anna Hartley.

Mosquitoes carrying the malaria parasite are kept for analysis.

Dr Burkot believes that the biggest challenge working against malaria elimination is the development of resistance to the current malaria drug used in Vietnam, artemisinin.

“There is a big push in Vietnam and the global community to retain the resistance to this last remaining effective anti-malarial compound,” Dr Burkot says.

“The other problem is Vietnam has at least 11 different mosquito species that are dominant vectors in malaria and these different mosquito species all have different behaviours.

“In the Solomon islands they only have one single species that transmits malaria.”

“When we talk about elimination we are talking about getting rid of every parasite so that makes it difficult,” Dr Burkot says.

Australia is a main contributor to global malaria research and is held in high regard in the international community.

“Australia has always had a very strong presence in malaria research and that’s something I think the Australian people should be really proud of,” Dr Burkot says.

“It’s important to get across the message that if malaria elimination was easy it would have already been done, it’s tough.”

“Mosquitos are nimble, they evolve quickly, they change their behaviours, develop resistance to insecticides … so we have to be as nimble as the mosquito”

“Malaria elimination is doable, but the time frame, I’m not so sure about that.”

Mr Hung, an entomologist, contracted malaria while in the field. Photo by Anna Hartley.

Mr Hung, an entomologist, contracted malaria while in the field.

Although the elimination of malaria in Vietnam faces its challenges, Mr Hung from NIMPE in Ho Chi Minh City is confident the goal of 2030 can be achieved and believes it is worth fighting for.

“Malaria elimination is of great importance to Vietnamese society,” Mr Hung says.

“I believe that with the investment from the government to our institution we will eliminate malaria by the year 2030.

“It will improve the health of the labour work[force]so people can contribute to the economy and it can grow even more,” Mr Hung says.

As a man who has beaten the illness once already, Mr Hung has a clear message for the people of Vietnam.

“The message we are trying to send is that we must invest in the future and defeat malaria.”

 

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Anna Hartley

Anna Hartley is in her third year of a dual Bachelor of Journalism and Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in International Relations and German. Anna has a passion for travel and human interest stories and her goal is to work in print and television news and current affairs. Anna will graduate in July of 2015 and is already freelancing for local newspapers and searching for cadetships. Ultimately she has ambitions to work internationally, for the ABC or at a major national newspaper such as The Australian.

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