In a new study, researchers have found that the blood disease alpha thalassemia may protect kids from malaria.
Alpha thalassemia is an inherited blood disorder in which children suffering from it unusually make small red blood cells that mostly cause a mild form of anaemia.
Now, researchers at the University of Oxford led by Karen Day, Ph.D., Professor and Chairman of the Department of Medical Parasitology at NYU School of Medicine, have found that having small red blood cells is an advantage against malaria.
"We made the surprising finding that packaging your hemoglobin in smaller amounts in more cells is an advantage against malaria," she said.
As a part of the study, researchers analysed around 800 children living in Papua, New Guinea, where malaria is endemic.
68 percent of children in Papua have alpha thalassemia. Dr. Day and her colleagues from the University of Oxford, Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research, and Swansea University, showed that kids with mild form of the disorder tolerated massive blood loss caused by severe malaria because they started out with 10 to 20 percent more red blood cells than unaffected children.
"It is really remarkable and so simple. Children with alpha thalassemia have adapted to the loss of red blood cells associated with malarial disease by making more of these cells with less hemoglobin," says Dr. Day.
"So, these children do better because they end up with more hemoglobin overall when they have a malaria attack compared to normal children.
"We show that alpha thalassemia is giving the child a hematological advantage by making more red blood cells.
The study is published in the March issue of the journal PLoS Medicine.