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The scare about monkey malaria

September 15, 2009 - 20:00 -- Bart G.J. Knols

It has been an interesting week regarding the latest addition to the list of species of malaria parasites that can infect humans: Plasmodium knowlesi. I was interviewed by two Dutch radio programmes that picked up the scare from the BBC World website . Apparently there was also a Dutch tourist that returned back home from Sarawak with this 'deadly form of monkey malaria'....

To the general public it must sound like a fascinating mix of what they saw in the classic 'Outbreak', combined with the general scare about Swine flu, and the overload we receive through the news that armageddon is just around the corner because Al Gore warned us and we didn't take action promptly and adequately.

Nothing is further from the thruth. As it turns out, infections with the zoonotic P. knowlesi may have been happening all along but it was simply their misdiagnosis (and being mistaken for the parasite P. malariae) that kept monkey malaria unknown all this time.

Moreover, it turns out that, even though the erythrocytic cycle appears faster than any other of the known parasites, that the parasite is highly sensitive to both chloroquine and primaquine. The fatality rate in a recent study was below 2%.

All in all not sufficient reasons to ring the alarm bells. That we need a better grip on what knowlesi does and how its transmissibility to mosquitoes and humans influences its epidemiology is no doubt a useful way to go. But to scare the general public that a deadly form of monkey malaria is spreading around the globe is simply outrageous.

Considering that this is one of my first editorial blogs in the new MalariaWorld platform I sincerely hope that journalists will sign up and receive correct, balanced, and expert information from those that have signed up. We need to move beyond journalists reading scientific papers half-heartedly and then shooting of news items on websites. What we need is informed dialogue. It would be great to see the editor of the BBC World Health section signing up to the MalariaWorld. You're most welcome!