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The BBC's Joanne Gilhooly:
"Disease is on the move"
 real 28k

Monday, 12 June, 2000, 14:25 GMT 15:25 UK
Malaria could be Europe-bound
Anopheles gambie mosquitoes
Anopheles gambie mosquitoes: Some of the world's most dangerous killers
By Joanne Gilhooly in London

In the past few decades, there has been an explosion in international travel, and, along with it, the threat of spreading disease.

In the UK, we have 32 species of mosquito...One of them has been shown to be a possible transmitter of the falciparum form...Falciparum is a killer.
Professor Keith Snow, University of East London

Scientists now fear that diseases like malaria - not seen in Europe for years - may be returning.

This process is being helped by global warming.

According to the World Health Organisation, the drugs that used to control these diseases are becoming ineffective.

Local bugs could turn nasty

Professor Keith Snow of the University of East London has been investigating the larvae of the mosquito anopheles plumbeus, which hatches in tree holes.

Tests on the species so far suggest that in the future it could be a carrier of the most dangerous form of malaria.

However, the tests are not being carried out in a tropical jungle, but in Epping Forest, just outside London.

"In the UK we have 32 species of mosquito", explains Professor Snow.

"One of them has been shown to be a possible transmitter of the falciparum form...Falciparum is a killer."

I think certainly the trend is going to be that we'll see more tropical disease in the UK

Dr Charlie Easmon, London's Hospital for Tropical Diseases.
No one yet knows whether, if malaria were introduced in the UK, it could complete its development in local mosquitoes.

However, with the climate in Europe set to warm by a couple of degrees over the next 50 years, the conditions are becoming more congenial.

"Airport malaria"

Even now, says Professor Snow, the phenomenon of so-called "airport malaria", where an infected mosquito is accidentally brought into the country on a plane, means local infection is possible.

"There is a real risk particularly around our major airports that the parasite could well be transmitted," explains Professor Snow.

"There have been cases where this is shown to occur so it is possible."

Airport malaria: An infected mosquito accidentally gets into a country by airplane
Airport malaria: An infected mosquito accidentally gets into a country by airplane

"I think with increased travel that is becoming more likely and if you had increased temperature here then the chance of the survival of the mosquitoes off the aircraft could be greater."

A warming climate could also lead to the gradual migration north of malarial mosquitoes from Africa.

The disease is on the move. The anopheles gambie is one of the world's most dangerous killers.

These mosquitoes are a major carrier of malaria in Africa, a disease that is claiming two million lives every year.

Drug-resistant strains

Even more worryingly for Europeans, malaria is among a number of diseases becoming increasingly drug resistant.

Professor Keith Snow
Professor Snow: Takes malaria threat seriously

There are 10 million people who leave the UK every year for exotic locations.

They risk not only returning with a tropical disease but, more and more often, with one that cannot be treated.

The World Health Organisation says the West has ignored the diseases of the poorer nations at its peril.

Through the misuse or simply lack of antibiotics, resistant strains have been allowed to run rampant in some countries.

Through travel, diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, which were once under control in Europe could return there.

Furthermore, scientists like Professor Stephen Gillespie of London's Royal Free Hospital, are warning that there are no new antibiotics in development and action is needed now.

"Although in the United Kingdom presently resistant organisms are uncommon, we're seeing an increasing trend which is a small one at the moment but in other countries throughout the world, the trend is much faster and that will eventually come here irrespective of the organism," he warns.

Early detection vital

It can be pretty frightening

Eddie Banire, malaria sufferer
"I think certainly the trend is going to be that we'll see more tropical disease in the UK," warns Dr Charlie Easmon of the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London.

"There's a problem that a lot of our teams who aren't trained specifically in tropical medicine so may not recognise the particular tropical disease when the individual returns."

Eddie Banire was one of the lucky ones. When he returned from holiday with the potentially fatal falciporem malaria from Nigeria, Mr Banire's condition was diagnosed and and he was rushed to hospital.

He had not taken anything from an albeit decreasing arsenal of anti-malarial drugs.

"It can be pretty frightening", he says.

The introduction of the same disease to Britain may seem remote but scientists are taking the threat seriously.

Mozambique boy with malaria
A baby boy in Mozambique suffers from malaria

What if a traveller, who has been infected by drug-resistant malaria, is bitten by a local mosquito - could the disease spread in this way?

"That's very true, that certainly could happen. We don't want to be alarmist about it but it certainly could happen," says Professor Snow.

For the past few decades, while people in the developing world have suffered, those in wealthy countries have basked in relative peace from rampant disease.

However, the world is changing and more complacency could be fatal.

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See also:

31 May 00 | UK
Bringing malaria home
26 Jul 99 | Medical notes
28 May 00 | Health
Azeris winning malaria battle
21 Apr 00 | Health
Malaria vaccine 'closer'
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