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Changes in malaria parasite may make Africans more susceptible

People with genetic protection from Plasmodium vivax have begun to fall ill

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4:41pm, November 15, 2013

WASHINGTON — A form of malaria largely absent in sub-Saharan Africa has begun to make inroads there. Ominous signals are emerging simultaneously in population studies and under the microscope that Plasmodium vivax, a malaria parasite well known in Asia and Latin America, may have found a way to infect Africans. Researchers presented the results November 15 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

Most Africans and many African Americans carry a genetic trait that makes it hard for the vivax protozoan to infect their red blood cells. These people lack a receptor protein on their red blood cells called the Duffy protein. Missing this protein doesn’t seem to cause health problems. Rather, it’s a plus because P. vivax hijacks the Duffy protein to gain entry into red blood cells and commandeer them.

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