Dean Mike Klag

Open Mike: Getting to Know Malaria

By Michael J. Klag, MD, MPH ’87

In medical school, I hated malaria—for all the wrong reasons.

The parasite’s life cycle was complex, and I had to memorize it every time I took a standardized test. Once I took the exam, I promptly forgot all about gametocytes, sporozoites, trophozoites and other details of the Plasmodium parasite. After all, there were no patients with malaria in Philadelphia in the 1970s.

Then, soon after I became dean, I went to Zambia.

Quickly, I learned malaria was not merely a frustrating challenge to my memorization skills. Malaria is a killer that claims the lives of young children and pregnant women and threatens the well-being of millions. In February 2006—during the rainy season—I stood in a rural hospital in a part of southwestern Zambia called Macha. A father sat on a chair cradling his son who had just emerged from a coma caused by cerebral malaria. The little boy was blind and deaf. Despite his son’s afflictions, the father was so happy to see him alive. He smiled as he fed the child spoonfuls of porridge.

I knew how lucky that boy was to have survived.

Nearly 800,000 people die from malaria every year. Despite humanity’s efforts, the disease still afflicts a significant percentage of the global population in a wide belt around the equator. It is an ancient disease that’s long been with us, and it is not going away anytime soon.

Malaria mostly kills children, who should have their entire lives ahead of them. They lose their lives; we lose their contributions to our world. Even those who survive malaria lose much to its repeated infections—national economies are drained of productivity and resources that could be applied to other needs.

Fortunately, in recent years, malaria has attracted unparalleled attention. The UN Secretary-General’s commitment to universal bed net coverage in sub-Saharan Africa, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s support for malaria research and control, the President’s Malaria Initiative and the NBA’s Nothing but Nets Campaign are just several diverse examples.

Closer to home, the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute (JHMRI) was founded 10 years ago with a gift from Michael R. Bloomberg. That remarkable gift allowed the School to hire more faculty, build new laboratory space and establish a malaria research site in Macha, Zambia.

JHMRI founding director Diane Griffin displayed particular genius by using the complex life cycle that I had hated to memorize as a weapon against the parasite. She used it as a strategic plan for recruiting world-class researchers, each of whom would target a specific phase in the parasite’s life cycle—seeking an Achilles’ heel. With Diane’s initial vision and Nobel laureate Peter Agre’s current leadership, JHMRI’s faculty are now delivering fundamental insights about the parasite and the Anopheles mosquito that are advancing global efforts to treat and control the disease.

As you read this issue, you will learn about their recent discoveries and promising research pathways for the future, as well as about malaria’s global impact, its personal toll and its astonishing complexity.

What we do best at the School is educate bright minds, create knowledge and develop the  evidence that translates into lifesaving interventions and rational policy.

JHMRI is an exemplary model of this process.

As I often tell friends and students of the Bloomberg School, we like tackling big problems that affect the health of populations. Malaria certainly fits that bill. Our goal is clear: Create the scientific basis for the eradication of malaria.