September 26, 2019

Congressional briefing highlights Department of Defense’s long war against a surprising enemy: malaria

Emily Conron
Policy and Advocacy Officer
Walter Reed Army Institute of Research

GHTC co-sponsored a congressional briefing on Tuesday organized by the American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) in conjunction with the Senate Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases Caucus to highlight the essential role of the US Department of Defense (DoD) in the fight against malaria. Most Americans think of malaria as a disease that only threatens people in far-off nations. But with American military personnel deployed in countries all around the globe, malaria remains an ongoing threat to the health of our servicemembers and, by extension, our military readiness. 

In fact, the battle against this parasite has been a persistent feature of US military history. Malaria has affected almost every US military deployment since the American Civil War and has caused more lost person-days than bullets during all military campaigns fought in malaria-endemic regions in the twentieth century. During World War II, General Douglas MacArthur famously complained to Dr. Paul Russell, then the Army's top malaria expert, “Doctor, it's going to be a very long war if for every division I have facing the enemy, I have one sick in hospital and another recovering from this dreadful disease.” 

Since World War II, DoD has been a world leader in the research and development (R&D) of new tools to prevent, diagnose, and treat malaria. While these efforts have always been focused foremost on protecting the health and readiness of US servicemembers, they have also benefitted communities around the world.” 

For instance, earlier this year, pilot introductions of the world’s first malaria vaccine, RTS,S—which was developed with research support from DoD’s Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR)—were launched in three sub-Saharan African countries. WRAIR remains a leader in malaria vaccine research, in partnership with the Naval Medical Research Center (NMRC), which is co-located on the same research campus and brings unique research capabilities. Amazingly, WRAIR and NMRC have also contributed to the development of every single malaria prevention drug approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, including all five available today. In 2018, a new single-dose treatment was approved for a strain of malaria that sickens around 8 million people annually—including US servicemembers. This treatment stems from research conducted at DoD and military research centers, research that has also led to the use of this compound as a drug for malaria prevention. 

These are just a few of the most recent examples that demonstrate the invaluable impact that DoD research has had on the global fight against malaria. The briefing, held in the Russell Senate Office Building with congressional staff and members of the malaria research and advocacy community in attendance, was a special opportunity to hear from some of the top malaria experts in the US military, including Colonel Deydre Teyhen, commander of WRAIR; Lieutenant Colonel Mara Kreishman-Deitrick, director of Experimental Therapeutics at the WRAIR Center for Infectious Disease Research; Colonel Viseth Nguay, director of the WRAIR Malaria Vaccine Branch; Colonel Philip Smith, director of the WRAIR Center for Enabling Capabilities; and Captain Eileen Villasante, head of the Malaria Department at NMRC. 

In her opening remarks, Colonel Teyhen highlighted that, whereas most Americans might think a shark is the most dangerous animal they could encounter, mosquitoes pose a far greater threat. She emphasized that DoD’s investments in malaria R&D are critical as both military strategy and the malaria parasite evolve.

Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) stopped by after Colonel Teyhen spoke to share his deep personal commitment to the fight against malaria and commend DoD for its important work. He also received a fashionable malaria-themed tie. 

After Senator Coons’ remarks, the panel continued with an overview of DoD’s prolific contributions to malaria R&D, sharing more fascinating facts and insights. 

The briefing was an excellent opportunity for congressional staff, researchers, and advocates to gather, learn, and discuss DoD’s historic role in malaria R&D and the opportunities for continued US leadership in this area of vital importance for our troops and communities around the world. 

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