Over a billion people worldwide fall prey to vector-borne diseases like malaria, dengue, yellow fever, leishmaniasis, etc, every year—and nearly a million of them die, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In advance of the World Health Day, April 7, WHO has warned that close to half of the world population is now at risk from vector-borne diseases. While mosquito-borne dengue is the world’s most rapidly-spreading vector-borne disease—2.5 billion people in 100 countries now risk contracting the disease, the WHO says—the threat from such diseases is especially grave for South East Asia. Ten out of the 11 countries in this region are malaria-endemic, home to over 40% of the world population at risk from the disease. In fact, South East Asia bears 17% of the world’s infectious disease burden.
Which is why stepping up R&D on finding cures and vaccines—for example, for dengue which has no cure or vaccine—becomes all the more important. Progress on this front for malaria, so far, has been slow but encouraging. While drug-developer Mosquito One has successfully produced artemisinin, used in anti-malarial drugs, from a synthetic yeast gene, Nature reported in October 2013 that a vaccine prototype for malaria had been developed and successfully tested in lab conditions. But taking the vaccine outside the lab would require getting past many hurdles. Apart from the logistical hurdles of developing the vaccine in a form where it can be mass-produced and administered, there is the question of clinical trials to consider. This is where countries like India, which stand to lose the most if vector-borne diseases assume the drastic proportions WHO has warned about, need to step in and ease policy to facilitate discovery of cures and vaccines.