An international group of scientists, including Dr. Nathan Wolfe and the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (GVFI), announced today their discovery of the origins of the deadliest form of human malaria - Plasmodium falciparim. The falciparim parasite is responsible for more than one million deaths each year. GVFI, a 2008 Google.org grantee, monitors the spread of disease from animals to humans by analyzing blood and tissue samples collected from high-risk humans (bushmeat hunters, live-market workers, and more) and the animals they are in contact with.
The finding, documented in today's edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), disproves the long-held belief that malaria is an ancient disease that has evolved along with its human hosts for over 5 million years. Instead, analysis of several new blood samples from chimpanzees in Cameroon and Côte d'Ivoire, has shown that human malaria began as a chimpanzee disease that jumped species (presumably when a human sustained a bite from a mosquito carrying chimpanzee malaria) as recently as 10,000 years ago.
Why do we care about the origins of the disease? Firstly, it demonstrates that interspecies disease transfer has been occurring for millennia, and is not a modern phenomenon confined to our more recent experience with HIV, SARS and swine flu. We must monitor this important mechanism of disease emergence if we want to catch the next pandemic, for the sake of our health and the health of generations to come. Secondly, the study has demonstrated that chimpanzees carry a greater diversity of close relatives to human malaria than previously understood. These could be the source of lifesaving new vaccines or treatments for human malaria.
Dibamba is a chimpanzee in the Mfou National Park in Cameroon. This individual and other chimpanzees in Cameroon and Ivory Coast were found infected with parasites that show that human malaria originated in chimpanzees.
(Photo by Matthew LeBreton, Global Viral Forecasting Initiative)