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Research eyes new treatments for malaria

THE human eye can help doctors understand how an acute form of malaria attacks the brain, researchers said on Wednesday, opening the way to better treatments for one of Africa's biggest killers.

By examining the eyes of people with cerebral malaria, researchers detected tiny blood vessel blockages in the brain that they believe starve brain cells and cause the disease, which mainly affects children.

The finding means drugs such as statins, which help improve circulation, could be used in new treatments to fight cerebral malaria, the researchers said.

"What we are talking about is multiple small areas of blockages in the brain where the brain isn't getting enough blood and oxygen," Nick Beare of the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, who led the research, said.

"We think this is critical in causing coma and death in cerebral malaria," he said.

Malaria killed 881,000 people and infected 247 million worldwide in 2006, mainly in Africa, according to the World Health Organization's latest statistics. Some malaria experts say those numbers underestimate the problem.

The disease, which is caused by a parasite transmitted by mosquitoes, has become resistant to some drugs, and work on a vaccine has been slow.

Some effective treatments exist. However, they target the parasite and do not address problems that lead to coma and death, Beare said.

"We looked at the eye because the retina - the tissue at the back of the eye that picks up light - is really an extension of the brain," Beare said.


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