The Upside To Anemia: Iron Deficiency Protects Children From Malaria, Says Study


Anemia is generally perceived as a negative condition. New research, however, suggests that the same health condition, which could be accountable for severe long-term consequences, actually protects children against malaria.

The research also points out that addressing the iron deficiency with supplements could also diminish or even completely neutralize its effects against the deadly virus.

Anemia, Natural Protection Against Malaria

Iron deficiency is the most common condition caused by nutritional problems worldwide, and about 9.6 percent of the American population suffers from it. However, according to a new research, published in the journal EBioMedicine, the condition has proven to be beneficial against Malaria.

The observational study indicates that iron supplementation increases the risk of malaria, although the underlying mechanism of this process is still unknown.

"We investigated how anemia inhibits blood stage malaria infection and how iron supplementation abrogates this protection.[...] Iron supplementation completely reversed the observed protection and hence should be accompanied by malaria prophylaxis. Lower hemoglobin levels typically seen in populations of African descent may reflect past genetic selection by malaria," noted the study.

The researchers from University of North Carolina, in collaboration with the Medical Research Council Unit in The Gambia and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, have investigated the red blood cells of 135 subjects between the ages of 6 months and 24 months in an area where the virus is highly active.

The subjects were administered with micronutrient powder to combat the iron deficiency for 84 days, at the end of which they discovered that anemia reduced the blood-stage of malaria by 16 percent. This discovery implies that anemia represents a very powerful natural protector against malaria.

Additionally, one of the hypotheses of the research is that the high prevalence of anemia within people from the African desert area is of genetic nature, while also being a signature of malaria.

When anemic children were administered iron supplements for seven weeks, the progress of malaria retook its course, and its invasion at the blood level was reversed. Before conducting this research, the same team found that the reason why children seem to be so affected by the virus lies in their young red blood cells, which represent a perfect host for malaria.

"This study is elegant in its simplicity, yet remains one of the most substantial and systematic attempts to unveil the cellular-level relationship between anemia, iron supplementation and malaria risk," noted Carla Cerami, M.D. Ph.D., lead scientist on the project at the MRC Unit in The Gambia.

Malaria, An Ongoing Threat

According to a WHO report released in 2016, there were 212 million reported cases of malaria in 2015 across the world, and the global incidence between 2010 and 2015 dropped by 21 percent. Additionally, due to the organized efforts to diminish the number of cases, the mortality among patients infected with the disease decreased by 29 percent within the same period.

"Nevertheless, significant gaps in program coverage remain. Access to vector control has been greatly extended through mass-distribution campaigns; however, increasing the coverage of chemoprevention, diagnostic testing and treatment requires these interventions to be delivered through health systems that are frequently under-resourced and poorly accessible to those most at risk of malaria. Moreover, the potential for strengthening health systems in malaria endemic countries is often constrained by low national incomes and per capita domestic spending on health and malaria control," noted the report.

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