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Here's the lowdown on Tomato Flu


A few months ago, we told you about an emerging health threat that was receiving a lot of attention: monkey pox.Today we're here to explain a little more about another health issue that is gaining some traction in the headlines at the moment: Tomato Flu. Called Tomato Flu because of the painful, red blisters it causes that can be as big as a tomato, the likely viral disease has so far impacted more than 100 children in India's Kerala region. According to The Lancet medical journal, Tomato Flu was first identified in the Kollam district of Kerala, India on May 6, 2022. The journal further notes that the disease is considered non-life-threatening and resolves on its own in time. Furthermore, The Lancet says that Tomato Flu's primary symptoms observed in infected children resemble those of chikungunya, a mosquito-borne virus which can cause high fever, rashes, and intense pain in joints. “Transmission is likely to be through close contact,” said Hannah Newman, MPH, director of infection prevention at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. “The virus has been named tomato flu on the basis of the red, painful blisters it causes that can mimic the look and size of a tomato,” Newman added. Seeing as Tomato Flu is contagious, there is a significant chance it could spread outside of India. *Image by Mabel Amber from Pixabay

GM Fungus Shows Huge Promise In Fight Against Malaria


A fungus that has been genetically modified (GM) to produce spider toxin can rapidly kill 99% of mosquitoes that carry and spread malaria. Following trials of the fungus – known as Metarhizium pingshaense – in Burkina Faso, 99% of malaria mosquito populations were wiped out in just 45 days. Metarhizium pingshaense was used because it naturally infects Anopheles mosquitoes (the ones that carry and spread malaria). Scientists then enhanced it using genetic engineering so the fungus would start creating its own version of a venom found in a species of funnel-web spider. For the trials, scientists built a fully-enclosed ‘mosquitosphere’ that mimicked a small village community. They introduced 1,500 mosquitoes. When the insects were left alone, their numbers soared, but when the fungus was introduced, just 13 mosquitoes remained after 45 days. The researchers say their aim is not to destroy all mosquitoes, simply to cull the spread of malaria – a disease that kills more than 400,000 people every year (mostly children). Speaking about the trials, Dr Tony Nolan, from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, said: “These results are encouraging. “We need new and complementary tools to augment existing control methods, which are being affected by the development of insecticide-resistance.” The results of the GM fungus trials are published in the journal Science.

Landmark child malaria vaccine rolls out in three African countries


According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2017, there were an estimated 219 million cases of malaria in 87 countries, which resulted in 435,000 deaths – many of which were children. It remains one of the world’s leading killers, claiming the life of a child every two minutes. That’s why a new vaccine against the deadly mosquito-borne disease is being hailed as a landmark. The first vaccine of its kind, the RTS,S vaccine trains the body’s immune system to attack the malaria parasite. It is being given to children as part of a large scale pilot programme being conducted in Malawi. Previous, smaller trials showed that nearly 40% of 5-to-17-month olds who received the RTS,S vaccine were protected from malaria. The vaccine comes at a crucial time as malaria cases appear to be rising once more after decades of success in combatting the disease. Speaking about the pilot, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, said: “Malaria is a constant threat in the African communities where this vaccine will be given. The poorest children suffer the most and are at highest risk of death. “We know the power of vaccines to prevent killer diseases and reach children, including those who may not have immediate access to the doctors, nurses and health facilities they need to save them when severe illness comes.” Malawi is the first of three countries, along with Ghana and Kenya, where the vaccine will be rolled out. The aim is to immunize 120,000 children aged two years and below. Malawi, Ghana and Kenya were chosen because despite operating large programmes to tackle malaria, including promoting the use of mosquito nets, they still have high numbers of cases. The RTS,S vaccine has been more than three decades in the making.

Dengue fever could be culled by special mosquitoes


Dengue fever is a mosquito-borne viral disease found in tropical and sub-tropical climates worldwide. Severe dengue is a leading cause of death and serious illness among children in Asian and South American countries. Unfortunately, there is no definitive medical treatment for dengue fever, but hope may be on the horizon. That’s because researchers in Australia say they have managed to eradicate dengue from an entire city using captive-bred mosquitoes. The captive-bred mosquitoes have the naturally-occurring bacteria Wolbachia, which hinders dengue transmission. The bacteria are spread as the released mosquitoes mate with local mosquitoes. As a result, the city of Townsville has been dengue-free since 2014. The researchers, all of whom are from Monash University, also believe the technique could be used to stop other mosquito-borne diseases like Zika and malaria. Speaking to the Guardian, Scott O'Neill, director of the World Mosquito Program, said: "Nothing we've got is slowing these diseases down - they are getting worse." "I think we've got something here that's going to have a significant impact and I think this study is the first indication that it's looking very promising." The results of the Australian researchers’ study were published in Gates Open Research. The next step is to trial the approach in Yogyakarta in Indonesia - a city of nearly 390,000.

Malaria breath test could provide cheaper, non-invasive diagnoses


A breath test that can detect whether someone has malaria is showing signs of promise in parts of Africa where it’s being trialled. The crude prototype picks up on distinctive “breath prints” that people with the mosquito-borne disease have. During a trial involving children in Malawi, in south-eastern Africa, the breath test had a success rate of 83%. While that’s not high enough for the test to be routinely used at present, it is very promising and suggests the test could be developed further into an off-the-shelf product. According to the team of scientists at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo, who developed the breath test, individuals with malaria have six unique compounds in their breath. These compounds are what the breath test looks out for. Once refined and able to detect malaria with greater accuracy, the breath test could provide a cheaper, non-invasive method for determining whether someone has the disease. Talking about the promising signs displayed by the breath test, Prof James Logan from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said: "The rapid detection of asymptomatic malaria is a challenge for malaria control and will be essential as we move towards achieving the goal of malaria elimination. A new diagnostic tool, based on the detection of volatiles associated with malaria infection is exciting." According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 212 million cases of malaria were reported worldwide in 2015 and about 429,000 people died, many of them children.

Zika virus could be used to treat aggressive brain cancers, say US scientists


The harmful Zika virus, which is spread by mosquitoes and causes devastating brain damage in babies, could be used to treat aggressive brain cancer in adults, according to US scientists. Up until now, Zika has only been seen as a major global health threat, but the new research could see it become a remedy. The scientists say the virus can be used to selectively infect and destroy hard-to-treat cancerous cells in adult brains. In mice studies, the Zika virus was seen to successfully shrink aggressive tumours, yet left other brain cells unscathed. While human trials are still quite a way off, laboratory tests show that the virus works on human cells, and experts believe the Zika virus holds a huge amount of potential. They say it could be injected into a human brain at the same time as surgery to remove life-threatening tumours. Some brain cancers are fast growing and spread quickly through the brain. This makes it very difficult to see where the tumour finishes and healthy tissue begins. As an extra precaution, the team from Washington University School of Medicine and the University of California San Diego School of Medicine have already begun modifying the Zika virus to make it less potent than the regular strain. Researcher Dr Michael Diamond said: "It looks like there's a silver lining to Zika. This virus that targets cells that are very important for brain growth in babies, we could use that now to target growing tumours."

Extreme gardening shown to help in fight against malaria


A team of researchers have successfully culled mosquito populations in nine West African villages by cutting off their food supply, reducing the risk of malaria in those areas. By removing flowers from a common plant that has become a horticultural bully – the Prosopis juliflora shrub – the researchers were able to kill off lots of the older, adult, female, biting insects that transmit malaria. Experts believe that by reducing the amount of nectar (energy) available to these older “granny” mosquitoes, the cycle of malaria transmission can be stopped. That’s because it’s only these Anopheles mosquitoes that carry the malaria parasite in their saliva and transmit it to people when they bite and draw blood. An infected person can then pass the parasite on to other younger, biting, female mosquitoes, increasing the spread of the parasites further. In the villages where the flowers of the Prosopis juliflora shrub were removed, mosquito numbers were seen to drop by almost 60%. While there is no direct proof, the researchers believe the mosquitoes died of starvation. Reporting the team’s findings in the journal Malaria Research, Prof Jo Lines, a malaria control expert from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the novel approach held amazing potential, alongside other malaria prevention strategies.

Kenya, Ghana and Malawi to get first ever malaria vaccine


The world's first vaccine against malaria will be introduced in three countries - Kenya, Ghana and Malawi - starting in 2018; a move that the World Health Organisation (WHO) says has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives. The RTS,S vaccine, as it's known, trains the body's immune system to attack the malaria parasite, which is transmitted to people through mosquito bites. However, it is not yet known if the vaccine will be feasible to use in the poorest parts of the world where access to healthcare is often very limited. This is because the vaccine needs to be given four times over an 18-month period. The concern is that while the vaccine schedule could be followed in a closely-controlled and well-funded clinical trial, real-world situations may prove more difficult - especially in poorer countries. It's the primary reason the WHO is running trials of the vaccine in the three aforementioned countries. It is thought that high risk areas will be targeted first in each of the three countries, all of which already run large programmes to tackle malaria. The trial will involve more than 750,000 children aged between five and 17 months. In the clinical trial, the vaccine prevented nearly four in 10 cases of malaria in this age group. Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO regional director for Africa, said: "The prospect of a malaria vaccine is great news. "Information gathered in the pilot programme will help us make decisions on the wider use of this vaccine. "Combined with existing malaria interventions, such a vaccine would have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives in Africa."

World’s First Malaria Vaccine Approved by European Drug Regulators


Malaria kills more than half a million people every year, most of whom are children in Africa. But now, a new vaccine, known as RTS,S, has taken the first step to becoming the first licensed Malaria vaccine. The quality, safety and efficacy of the vaccine have been assessed by the European Medicines Agency's (EMA) Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use (CHMP), which has concluded that it should be given to children in Africa aged 6 weeks to 17 months. The World Health Organisation (WHO) will now review the vaccine further later this year and make a decision whether it should be recommended for use. Approximately 90% of all Malaria deaths each year occur in Africa and 77% of these are in children under five years of age. At present, the most effective preventative measures in Africa to protect against Malaria are bed nets and insecticides which lower the risk of being bitten by a mosquito. Artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs), which have to be administered within 24-hours of a fever appearing, are also used to combat Malaria. If it wins approval, however, the RTS,S vaccine could be used in conjunction with existing Malaria-prevention measures to further bolster Malaria defences. Sir Andrew Witty, CEO of GSK – which manufactures RTS,S - said: "While RTS,S on its own is not the complete answer to malaria, its use alongside those interventions currently available such as bed nets and insecticides, would provide a very meaningful contribution to controlling the impact of malaria on children in those African communities that need it the most."     Photo credit: The Wall Street Journal