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Zoonotic malaria parasite found in Indian patients: AIIMS researchers sound alarm

Plasmodium knowlesi can cause daily fever spikes 9-12 days after the infection.

This malarial parasite is found in long-tailed and pig-tailed macaques. It can cause daily fever spikes 9-12 days after the infection and organ failure in severe cases.

Written by Longjam Dineshwori |Updated : September 8, 2020 9:23 AM IST

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has brought the world to a standstill, is a zoonotic disease caused by the novel coronavirus that is believed to have emerged from bats. Amidst this global health crisis, AIIMS researchers have sounded an alarm after finding the presence of a zoonotically transmitted malaria parasite in Indian patients.

Zoonotic diseases or zoonoses are caused by viruses, bacteria, parasites, or fungi that can be spread/jump from animals to humans, and vice versa.

The AIIMS researchers found the presence of malaria parasite 'Plasmodium knowlesi' in the north Indian population while doing a study on patients with Acute Febrile Illnesses (AFI) and pathogens causing them. Plasmodium knowlesi is found in nature in long-tailed and pig-tailed macaques. The patients were admitted to the All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) from July 2017 to September 2018.

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The presence of the zoonotic parasite was found in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Delhi. A previous study at AIIMS had found its presence in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

This zoonotic malaria parasitecan lead to organ failure

Plasmodium knowlesi can cause fever 9-12 days after the infection. In severe cases, it may lead to organ failure as well, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The AIIMS research team also found simultaneous pathogenic infections in patients with fever, influencing the severity of the disease. The patients were co-infected with other pathogens like dengue virus and bacterial species Leptospira and Orientia Tsutsugamushi.

According to the researchers, acute febrile illnesses (AFI) is caused by a group of infections with similar clinical presentations such as fever, malaise, bodyache, chills, hepatic and renal dysfunction, and CNS effects. Therefore, it is difficult to distinguish between the causative agents of AFI, which can be bacterial, parasitic, or viral.

How to stay safe from zoonotic parasites

Zoonotic parasites are all around us, said Pragyan Acharya, Associate Professor, Department of Biochemistry, who led the AIIMS study.

A major reason for the prevalence of zoonotic diseases is because humans are increasingly encroaching the space of animals, leading to a massive decline in forest cover and consequent depleted habitats, Acharya told IANS.

The researchers call for maintaining the habitats and ecosystems of animals for the prevention of these zoonotic diseases.

Below are a few preventive measures you can take to protect yourself and your family from zoonotic diseases.

  • Do not forget to wash your hands after being around animals, even if you didn't touch the animals.
  • Zoonotic diseases may spread from the bites of mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas. Prevent these insects.
  • Avoid bites and scratches from animals.
  • Avoid unpasteurized (raw) milk, undercooked meat or eggs, or raw fruits and vegetables that are contaminated with feces from an infected animal.
  • Make sure the water you're drinking is not contaminated with feces from an infected animal.

Top zoonotic diseases shared between animals and people

Scientists estimate that 6 out of every 10 infectious diseases are zoonotic. In 2019, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report listing the top zoonotic diseases of most concern in the United States. These include:

  • Zoonotic influenza
  • Salmonellosis
  • West Nile virus
  • Plague
  • Emerging coronaviruses
  • Rabies
  • Brucellosis
  • Lyme disease

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