On 19 November, during World Antimicrobial Awareness Week, ZonMw awarded a Parel (Award) to Dr. Henk Schallig, parasitologist at Amsterdam UMC. He received the award for the RAPDIF study, which developed better tools and knowledge for tackling fever and malaria in Africa.

Henk Schallig happy in garden with award

One of the biggest causes of fever is malaria, a disease that kills hundreds of thousands of people in Africa every year, the majority of them children under the age of five. The RAPDIF study found that the diagnosis and treatment of fever in young children in Africa is often inadequate. Rapid malaria tests are not reliable enough and, in the absence of a proper diagnosis, children with fever are often treated with both anti-malaria drugs and antibiotics. The antibiotics were found to be of no benefit in no fewer than 50 to 90% of cases.

New rapid test

The RAPDIF researchers approached the problem from two angles: making rapid malaria tests more reliable, and identifying other causes of fever. The study was performed by a group of Dutch and Burkinabe researchers in Burkina Faso. Together, they succeeded in developing a new rapid malaria test that is no less than a hundred times more sensitive that the current rapid tests. Local health workers were found to have more faith in the new test. A follow-up study involving 5700 children and adults in five African countries will show whether the new malaria test works on a large scale.

Bacterial diagnostic test

The RAPDIF team also discovered that, besides malaria, fever in young children is commonly caused by four types of bacteria: E-coli, Salmonella typhi, Pneumococcus and Streptococcus. The researchers worked on a rapid diagnostic test to detect these bacteria in blood, but this is a difficult technical challenge. Provided they secure funding, they hope to enable a rapid test for these bacteria which, combined with the rapid malaria test, would allow fever to be treated in a much more targeted way. Children could be given the correct treatment, either anti-malaria drugs or antibiotics.

International research

This would also help curb antimicrobial resistance. ‘Infectious diseases and antimicrobial resistance are good friends, travelling the world hand in hand, with no regard for borders or differences between people’, Henk Schallig explained. ‘The fact that we received this award for our work underlines the importance of international research into resistance. Knowledge gained in other parts of the world is very important for the Netherlands, and vice versa. The ZonMw and NWO-WOTRO Science for Global Development grant for our RAPDIF study contributed a huge amount of extra knowledge about use of medicines, diagnostics and resistance, and also about capacity-building in Burkina Faso. For our team in Burkina Faso and the Netherlands, the Parel is a huge encouragement to continue this work, and that is just what we plan to do.’

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