Malaria research bringing hope to Sierra Leone

The bush country of Sierra Leone is wildly beautiful, with majestic rivers, and miles of unbroken jungle. But hovering in the background is a silent killer -- mosquitoes that carry a deadly form of malaria.

In the surrounding villages, like Bagbo, the disease hits young children especially hard.

With the help of a flash light, one family took ABC7 inside their darkened hut and showed the torn mosquito net they all sleep under -- a net that offers little protection because of the hole.

If a child does contract malaria, immediate treatment can mean the difference between life and death.

"We seen malaria in all its gory complications," Dr. DJ Lavaly said.

Lavaly, a surgeon, trained at San Francisco General Hospital's Trauma Institute, learning the latest techniques for healing fractures. But most of the children in the ICU are suffering extreme complications from malaria. Families often don't reach the emergency hospital until the symptoms are already severe..

"So they're rushed in, gasping, requiring an urgent blood transfusion. And it takes up 60-70 percent of the pediatric ward," Lavaly said.

But help could soon be on the way from the Bay Area. Berkeley researcher Jay Keasling and his team have developed a synthetic form of the most commonly used malaria drug -- artemisinin, which until now had to be extracted from the wormwood plant.

In partnership with One World Health and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, scientists use synthetic biology to produce artemisinin from the bacteria E. coli in huge brewery like tanks.

"The goal is to increase the supply, then stabilize the price, then lower the price substantially," Keasling said.

Keasling believes the price could eventually drop from several dollars a dose, to about 25 cents. It's expected to be widely available early next year.

Back in Sierra Leone, clinics rush to treat the children who are diagnosed while aid groups like World Vision work to educate families on prevention.

"We're always hammering, along with the government, thousands of bed nets have been distributed," World Vision spokesperson Jennifer Harold said.

While the efforts may take years to pay off, people are hoping that Sierra Leone may someday join the growing list of countries that have eradicated malaria.

ABC News is partnering with organizations like World Vision for the Million Moms Challenge. The hope is to connect a million Americans with millions of moms in the developing world to affect change.

Written and produced by Tim Didion

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