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A new South African research initiative that aims to find new and more effective ways of fighting malaria was launched yesterday (7 February).

It got an immediate boost from the South African government, which pledged 11.5 milllion rand (US$1.85 million) in funding.

The South African Malaria Initiative (SAMI) will promote collaborations between scientists at South African universities, science councils and other institutions, but also plans to forge links with researchers elsewhere in Africa and further afield.

It will focus on developing new medicines and better ways to diagnose malaria, as well as researching how the malaria parasite interacts with its mosquito host.

Even though South Africa has relatively few malaria cases compared to other countries in the region, the disease still poses a serious threat, says Jane Morris, director of the African Centre for Gene Technologies, which began planning SAMI last year.

The parasite is becoming increasingly resistant to drugs and insecticides. Last month, the World Health Organization warned that it could also develop resistance to the world's most effective malaria drug, artemisinin, if it is used inappropriately (see WHO warns against misuse of key malaria drug).

Morris said scientists are racing to find new ways to combat malaria and the mosquitoes that spread it, and that SAMI would seek additional funds from international donors to support its contribution to the fight against Africa's most deadly disease.

Science minister Mosibudi Mangena urged SAMI to find ways to combat malaria that were affordable and practical for developing countries.

Malaria kills between one and two million people each year, mostly in poor countries. About 57 per cent of the 500 million malaria cases reported each year occur in sub-Saharan-Africa, 30 per cent in Asia, and about five per cent in the Americas, says the WHO.