Life changing bite: Malaria takes limbs

September 5, 2011

While the disease was eradicated in the U.S. 60 years ago, half the world's population remains at risk. If you travel to an affected country, you could be at risk, too.

Now, a first-of-its kind drug could help put a stop to that.

Imagine brushing your teeth, fixing your hair opening a can of pop without your own hands. For Dawn Dubsky, it's a reality not even she was prepared for.

"I never thought I would lose my limbs," Dubsky said.

Three years ago, Dubsky was studying overseas in Ghana when a mosquito bit the back of her leg. Back at home, she went to the emergency room. Ravaged by the malaria parasite, Dubsky woke up a month later as a quadruple amputee.

"My parents had chosen to amputate my limbs to save my life," Dubsky said.

About 20,000 travelers are infected with malaria each year. Dr. Mats Wahlgren of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, is working to change that.

"It kills around 1 million people each year, and how many died in 9-11? 3,000. It's more or less the same figure per day that malaria takes away," Wahlgren said.

The parasite penetrates the red blood cells where it produces proteins that clog up the blood vessels -- a potentially deadly situation. The new intravenous drug treatment would prevent that from happening by preventing infected blood cells from binding and releasing blood cells that are already bound.

"It would be flushed and recognized by the spleen and killed there," Wahlgren said.

This medical breakthrough, however, came too late for Dubsky.

"For some reason, this happened. You have to make the best of it," Dubsky said, and she's taking steps to do just that. Her non-profit America Against Malaria is her way of fighting back against a disease that nearly took her life.

Scientists have been able to treat severe malaria in rats and primates with the new malaria drug. It remains to be seen whether the results will be replicated in people. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to fight malaria around the world. Dubsky's nonprofit America Against Malaria is raising money to help educate children in Ghana about the disease.

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