Study shows anemia may protect children against malaria in Africa

Study shows iron supplements may reverse natural protection against malaria in African children.
By Amy Wallace  |  Jan. 5, 2017 at 4:25 PM
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C., Jan. 5 (UPI) -- Researchers at the University of North Carolina have found that anemia may protect against malaria in a new study of African children.

A study by UNC Chapel Hill in collaboration with the Medical Research Unit in The Gambia and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, found that iron supplements used to treat anemia may have detrimental effects on children with little access to healthcare in malaria-endemic countries such as those in Africa.

Iron deficiency anemia is the most common form of nutritional deficiency in the world and can cause long-term adverse health problems in children.

The UNC study shows that iron deficiency anemia may actually protect children against the blood-stage of Plasmodium falciparum malaria and treating anemia with iron supplements removes this protection.

Researchers studied the red blood cells of 135 anemic children aged 6-24 months in a malaria-endemic region of The Gambia where sickle-cell trait was also common. As part of an iron supplementation trial, the children received iron through micronutrient powder for 84 days and their red blood cells were analyzed at baseline, day 49 and day 84.

"Our finding that anemia offers greater natural protection against blood-stage malaria infection than sickle-cell trait has led us to formulate the interesting hypothesis that the widespread prevalence of anemia in people of African descent is a genetic signature of malaria," Morgan Goheen, Ph.D., study lead author and graduate student in the UNC Department of Microbiology and Immunology, said in a press release.

Results showed reduced invasion and growth of blood stage P. falciparum were reversed in anemic children who received seven weeks of iron supplementation. The increased invasion and growth rates from iron supplementation are caused by the parasites' preference for young red blood cells.

"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," Dr. Carla Cerami, Ph.D., lead scientists on the project at the MRC Unit in The Gambia, said in a press release.

The study was published in EBioMedicine.

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