Malaria Prevention: Study Proves Anemia Can Protect Children Against Malaria

By Anne Dominguez , Jan 06, 2017 11:00 AM EST

Researchers found a rather surprising development in malaria prevention. A new study suggests that anemia protects the child's blood-stage of malaria. However, concerns emerge with the safety of iron supplements, as the study also reveals treatment of anemia with iron removes the protective effect.

Anemia is an iron deficiency characterized by the decrease of the amount of red blood cells or hemoglobin in the blood. It affects at least 8.8 percent of population worldwide and causes various complications such as shortness of breath, fatigue and stress on body organs.   

In a study published in EBioMedicine, researchers from the University of North Carolina (UNC), along with the from the Medical Research Council Unit in The Gambia, Africa, and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine studied 135 anemic children in a malaria-endemic region in The Gambia, Africa.

As part of an iron supplementation trial, the children, aged 6-24 months were given iron micronutrient powder for about 84 days. Their red blood cells were analyzed on the 49th and the 84th day. The results revealed that anemia reduced the invasion and growth of both laboratory and field strains of Plasmodium falciparum malaria in the children.

Its preventive effect if even higher than that of sickle-cell. Previously, researchers found out the link of malaria prevention for children with the sickle-cell trait. The study suggests that cases of malaria are reduced to anemic children by 15.9 percent compared to 3.5 percent for those with sickle-cell trait.

"Our finding that anemia offers greater natural protection against blood-stage malaria infection than sickle-cell trait has led us to formulate the interesting hypothesis that the widespread prevalence of anemia in people of African descent is a genetic signature of malaria," Morgan Goheen, Ph.D., lead author of the study said on a press release from UNC.

The researchers added that the protective effect of anemia was reversed when the children received the iron supplement. The study revealed the link between anemia, iron supplementation and malaria risk. It is important to intensify malaria prevention, giving caution to the use of iron supplements in malaria-endemic countries.

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