a group of school-age kids in Macha, Zambia

Taking Aim at Malaria in Zambia

By Greg Rienzi

Pediatrician Philip Thuma looks forward to the day when malaria no longer kills children and adults in Macha, Zambia—or anywhere else. He hopes the work conducted at a new malaria research site in Macha will bring the world closer to that reality.

The Malaria Institute at Macha (MIAM), which officially opened on January 28, is a joint project of the Bloomberg School’s Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute, Macha Mission Hospital, the Zambia government’s Central Board of Health, and the Macha Malaria Research Institute, founded by Thuma in 1997.

The center’s 25-person staff will conduct trials on new malaria drugs, both for acute cases and transmission blocking, and host an NIH-funded immunology study to examine the immune response to malaria—specifically why some children get severe disease and die and others do not. 

Researchers at the site will also study mosquito behavior. “This area is an ideal location for biological study, as it’s endemic with malaria and there has been no major practice of insecticide use, so the natural habitats of the mosquitoes remain intact,” says Thuma, MIAM’s executive director.

The new institute, which includes a laboratory, housing for staff and guest scientists, and a library, will serve as a core facility for the research community and house modern microbiology equipment and an insectary for mosquito studies. Researchers from the Bloomberg School, Zambian institutions and other organizations will use the site to conduct doctoral fieldwork.

Macha sits in the southern province of Zambia, roughly 40 miles from the nearest town of Choma and 80 miles from the nation’s capital, Lusaka. The area around Macha is home to Plasmodium falciparum—the malaria parasite that can trigger severe anemia, kidney failure and cerebral malaria. Cases of malaria occur year-round, with peak incidence during the rainy season, November to June. Malaria is the most common cause of death in Zambia, and the Macha Mission Hospital alone sees 5,000 acute cases each year.

The MIAM staff’s first task has been to conduct a baseline mapping of the countryside and develop a geographic information system. The population of the area, estimated at between 120,000 and 150,000 people, primarily lives in small, scattered homesteads. 

The Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute was established at the Bloomberg School early in 2001 with a $100 million gift from a donor. Its goal: to develop vaccines, treatments and mosquito control methods that will stop malaria, which annually afflicts nearly half a billion people with acute disease and kills more than 2 million.

“We are working toward the day [when] malaria won’t kill so many people, and the research conducted at this new research site will help us move toward that goal,” Thuma says. “At some point we want to put into practice more effective vaccines, and having a site like this gives us an ideal location for testing.”

Malaria expert Clive Shiff, PhD, associate professor of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the School, helped develop MIAM and will serve as its principal investigator. Shiff, who studies malaria control and medical entomology, says it’s a strong show of faith from Zambia’s Ministry of Health that one of its senior officials helped celebrate the new center’s opening.

“I think that demonstrates the level of acceptance that we have, and the importance of the work that will go on here,” he says.