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Malaria Parasite Infects Gorillas, Not Just Humans

Discovery may aid vaccine development, but could hinder efforts to eradicate disease, researchers say

WEDNESDAY, Jan. 20 (HealthDay News) -- Gorillas carry the parasite that causes malignant malaria in humans, a finding that could help in efforts to develop a vaccine for malaria, researchers say.

Malaria is a sometimes fatal disease, usually contracted from mosquitoes, most commonly in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. People who contract malaria typically develop flu-like symptoms with high fevers and chills, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the new study, researchers analyzed fecal samples from 84 gorillas in Cameroon and blood samples from three gorillas in Gabon and found the parasite Plasmodium falciparum, which was previously believed to only infect humans. P. falciparum causes 85 percent of malignant malaria infections in humans and nearly all deaths from malaria.

The scientists also found that the gorillas carried two closely related species of malaria parasites: Plasmodium GorA and Plasmodium GorB.

The discovery of P. falciparum in gorillas complicates efforts to eradicate malaria, according to the study published in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Hundreds of billions of dollars are spent each year toward ridding humans of malignant malaria. But success may be a pyrrhic victory, because we could be re-infected by gorillas -- just as we were originally infected by chimps a few thousand years ago," study co-author Francisco Ayala, a biologist at the University of California, Irvine, said in a university news release.

Along with potentially aiding in the development of a malaria vaccine, this finding helps improve understanding of how infectious diseases such as HIV, SARS and bird and swine flu can be transmitted from animals to humans, the researchers noted.

Each year, malaria sickens about 500 million people worldwide and causes 2 million infant deaths. Four kinds of malaria parasites can infect humans: P. falciparum, P. vivax, P. ovale, P. malariae. Infection with P. falciparum, if not promptly treated, may lead to death, according to the CDC.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about malaria.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: University of California, Irvine, news release, Jan. 19, 2010

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