How Malaria In The Brain Kills: Doctors Solve A Medical Mystery : Goats and Soda A child stricken with the deadliest form of the disease can quickly fall unconscious and die. A doctor in Michigan has dedicated her life to figuring out how this happens. At last, she has the answer.
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How Malaria In The Brain Kills: Doctors Solve A Medical Mystery

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How Malaria In The Brain Kills: Doctors Solve A Medical Mystery

How Malaria In The Brain Kills: Doctors Solve A Medical Mystery

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

To understand how devastating malaria can be, here's one way to look at it - in the time it takes to listen to this next story, four children will die from a severe form of the disease in Africa and Asia. Malaria is one of the oldest scourges of mankind, yet it's been a mystery how the disease actually kills children. A doctor in Michigan has dedicated her life to figuring that out, and finally has. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff has our story, which includes some graphic descriptions.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: When you think about malaria, you probably think about - a mosquito bites you, and you get a bad fever and body aches. What's actually happening is the mosquito injects a tiny parasite into your blood, and the parasite circulates in the bloodstream. In some cases, often with children, the parasite gets stuck in the brain. The child has a seizure, goes into a coma and can die. Dr. Terrie Taylor of Michigan State University says this all happens in only two or three days.

TERRIE TAYLOR: These are bright, happy, viable children who are suddenly felled by a disease that quickly renders them unconscious and quickly kills them. It's a catastrophe.

DOUCLEFF: Taylor says the sudden death of a child devastates not just the family, but the whole community.

TAYLOR: When you watch the ripple effect on these families, it's gut-wrenching. But imagine the ripple effect on their friends and their siblings. Suddenly, their friend's gone - just gone.

DOUCLEFF: Seeing so many families deal with these huge losses year after year made Taylor focus her entire career on one goal - figuring out why malaria in the brain causes death. It kills about a half a million kids a year. Since 1986, Taylor has been treating children with severe malaria in Malawi. She tried to figure this all out with autopsies, but she realized she needed to look inside children's brains while they're still alive. And for that, she needed an MRI machine. Those cost about a million dollars, so Taylor and her colleagues went to General Electric and eventually convinced the company to donate an MRI machine. Taylor says she'll never forget the first time they took images of a child's brain.

TAYLOR: I remember just staring at that image and thinking, oh, my goodness, now we know. Now we know what happened.

DOUCLEFF: The image showed massive swelling in the brain. Now, researchers new malaria could do this. What's happening is the parasite gets into the tiny capillaries of the brain and blocks blood flow. That triggers swelling. But what they didn't know is how that swelling caused death. What Doctor Taylor found with the MRI is that the brain was getting pushed out of the base of the skull and pressed against the brainstem.

TAYLOR: Unfortunately, when that happens, it presses on the respiratory center in the brainstem, and the pressure on the respiratory center is like flipping a light switch. Boom - they just stop breathing.

DOUCLEFF: And the child dies. Taylor and her team imaged the brains of about 170 children. She and her team published the study this week in The New England Journal of Medicine. Doctor Chandy John is a pediatrician at the University of Minnesota and studies malaria. He says Taylor's findings also point to a way to help these children.

CHANDY JOHN: Put the child on a ventilator. Then during a period when brain swelling might affect the child's ability to breathe, you could breathe for them.

DOUCLEFF: Then take the child off the ventilator when the brain swelling goes down. John says that many clinics in Africa don't have ventilators. But if a malaria ward in Malawi can get a million-dollar MRI machine, then he says surely somebody could donate ventilators to save children's lives. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.

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