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Of all the known malarial complications so far, cerebral malaria is the deadliest.

Malaria, a parasitic disease transmitted by the bite of an infected mosquito, kills an estimated one million people yearly. Malaria can be fatal, especially in children under the age of five, and it causes serious complications, including breathing problems, organ failure, severe anemia, hypoglycemia, and cerebral malaria.

So what exactly is cerebral malaria, and how can it possibly be worse than the complications that already arise with malaria?

Cerebral malaria occurs when the infected person’s blood cells, full of parasites, block blood vessels or capillaries leading to the brain. This usually results in swelling of the brain, brain damage, or even a coma. African children who develop malaria often contract this type of malaria, developing fatal complications. About 15-25% of the children with cerebral malaria die, and those who survive are no better off, as they typically retain some sort of disability, such as a learning disability, blindness, or deafness. Drugs treat the infection, but malaria can still spread rapidly in young children. There is currently no vaccine.

 Malaria is a commonly known disease, spread by the parasite mosquito.

Image Source: Joao Paulo Burini

Cerebral malaria had only been considered a fatal complication in the past; however, today, researchers are uncovering what makes it so dangerous. A recent study conducted by Dr. Taylor from Michigan State University reveals that asphyxiation, the primary cause of death in cerebral malaria patients, likely results from major swelling of the brain. The researchers enrolled 170 children in their study whose illnesses met a strict definition of cerebral malaria. MRI machines enabled them to study living patients rather than conduct postmortem studies and autopsies. In the end, 84% of the 25 children who died exhibited severe brain swelling symptoms in their MRIs. In contrast, only 27% of the surviving children showed signs of swelling.

Taylor believes that the swollen brain pushes on the skull base, causing compression of the brain stem. The brain stem and its structures regulate many key bodily functions, including respiration. Thus, the study suggests that the swelling causes actual neural suppression of breath; in essence, the patients cannot breathe because their respiratory centers malfunction. Taylor says the next step is to find out what causes the brain to swell so that it can be reversed. She believes that if patients are put on a ventilator to support breathing until the swelling subsides, their chances of survival might increase.

 The wonders of MRI helped researchers to study living patients for this study rather than postmortem.

Image Source: Morsa Images

Such research studies can hopefully help us avoid the gruesome symptoms and complications that result from malaria. Scientists are working to develop a vaccine for malaria. However, if you are traveling to countries where malaria is prevalent, it is advisable to take preventive measures and bring medications for the trip. This is especially important since many malaria parasites are now immune to the most common drugs and treatments used to fight the disease.

Feature Image Source: Stop Malaria by AJ, Milla, Del & Sean

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