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A Forest in Western Ghats is a Source of Research for Scientists to Understand How Malaria Spreads in Birds

The new study suggests that Plasmodium may be more likely to emerge in novel bird communities compared with Haemoproteus because the former lineages are found in a wide diversity of bird species.

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Updated:September 16, 2019, 12:24 PM IST
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A Forest in Western Ghats is a Source of Research for Scientists to Understand How Malaria Spreads in Birds
Representative image. (Image: Reuters)

India has seen a spike in mosquito-borne diseases like malaria, dengue, chikungunya across various the country this year. A number of initiatives have been taken since then to combat the growth of the mosquito-borne diseases, with both private citizens and the government taking a number of steps to ensure protection from mosquitoes.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on Sunday launched his special mass campaign, under the name "10 Hafte-10 Baje-10 Minute" (10 weeks-10 o'clock-10 minutes), against dengue by inspecting his home for stagnant water to prevent the spread of mosquito-borne diseases.

Notably, the Shola Sky Islands of the Western Ghats in peninsular India, that host radically different habitats and species has become an ideal spot for scientists from India and the United States as they try to find out how malaria-causing parasites in birds co-evolved with their hosts, according to a report in Scroll. According to the scientists, this might help understand how patterns of the disease emerge in nature or human communities.

The research, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society journal, provides insights into why certain parasites can rapidly establish themselves in novel places and impact health, while others are less capable. Notably, some malarial parasites in birds, such as the unicellular Plasmodium species, can rapidly invade a large number of avian species, causing large scale infections, while specialist parasites such as Haemoproteus species can infect only a few bird hosts.

Scientists from Indian Institute of Science Education and Research at Tirupati, the National Centre for Biological Sciences at Bangalore and the University of Georgia in the US studied avian malaria caused by Plasmodium and Haemoproteus in the Shola Sky Islands and demonstrated that some parasites are generalists and some are specialists.

Guha Dharmarajan, associate research scientist at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory at the University of Georgia and one of the authors of the paper further revealed that generalist parasites are more likely to be associated with disease emergence in natural communities.

Avian malaria is one of the most important emerging infectious diseases in wild birds and has been associated with large-scale avian deaths. However, the deaths have mostly been reported in areas where humans have recently introduced the virus, like Hawaii and New Zealand.

However, study co-author VV Robin has clarified that avian malaria parasites are specific to birds and cannot be passed onto humans or other mammals and thus do not pose a threat to human population.

The scientists hope that the results from their study in the Shola Sky Island bird community “may hold clues for what might happen in the future in other island bird communities, where avian malaria is more recently introduced.”

Notably, during the course of the study, scientists found about 40% of the bird populations were infected with avian malaria parasites, and the Haemoproteus was more commonly found than Plasmodium. They found 47 genetic lineages of avian malaria parasites, out of which 34 were novel and could be restricted to the Western Ghats.

The new study suggests that Plasmodium may be more likely to emerge in novel bird communities compared with Haemoproteus because the former lineages are found in a wide diversity of bird species, while Haemoproteus parasite lineages are restricted to one or only a few bird species.

According to Dharmarajan, the research has provided clues for emerging infectious diseases in wildlife and humans. The patterns observed in the study allow scientists to get a wider understanding of the evolutionary drivers of other emerging infectious diseases that affect human and wildlife populations.

Studies of avian malaria, especially in high elevation ecosystems like the Shola Sky Islands, could provide scientists with important insights into how the distribution and incidence of these diseases are likely to be affected by factors, Dharmarajan further added about the study.

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