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[LUSAKA] Zambia last month opened a national institute for malaria research, which will undertake clinical trials of potential drugs and investigate methods of disease prevention.

The Malaria Institute at Macha was created with financial and technical assistance from the US-based Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute at the Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

The institute is being hosted by the Macha Mission Hospital and Nursing School located 80 kilometres from Choma, in Zambia's Southern Province.

Zambia's health minister Brian Chituwo told SciDev.Net that the research institute should help scientists research drugs to fight malaria, a leading cause of death in Zambia and the rest of Africa.

Chituwo said that in the past, Zambia had used chloroquine to treat the disease but now that the malaria parasite has grown resistant to the drug, it had been replaced by coartem. He added that because the parasite could in future develop resistance to coartem also, "there is a need to do research to come up with new effective drugs".

Last month, Chituwo announced Zambia's plan to set up an independent national committee to monitor the ethics of health research, and to protect the rights, health and safety of participants in clinical trials of potential drugs (see Research ethics 'watchdog' planned in Zambia).

Without a research institute dedicated to studying malaria, Zambia has had to rely on research conducted at the Tropical Disease Research Centre in Ndola, he said.

According to the official news agency Zambia Information Services, 20 scientists are already researching the transmission, diagnosis and treatment of malaria at Macha hospital. Their work resulted in 21 publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals between October 1998 and December 2004.

Chrispine Sichone, a malaria researcher at the Ministry of Health, told SciDev.Net that the opening of the institute was welcome, highlighting the fact that a shortage of drugs in African hospitals is a major factor in the 2-3 million deaths caused by malaria each year. According to Sichone, there are approximately 3.2 million cases of malaria in Zambia each year.

A report released on 20 January by the Lusaka-based University Teaching Hospital, states that malaria is endemic in all nine provinces of Zambia, with pregnant women and children affected the most.

Malaria during pregnancy can make the mother anaemic, or cause her to have a miscarriage or to give birth to a baby of low birth weight. Severe cases can lead to the mother's death.

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