Could Marijuana Be a Treatment for Malaria?

There is an oft-repeated claim that malaria has killed half of all people that have ever existed. Whilst this is unlikely to be accurate, the numbers are still very high. Even today, malaria infects millions and kills hundreds of thousands every year.

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there were 229 million cases of malaria in 2019, resulting in 409,000 deaths.
  • Of these, children under five years-old were the worst affected, accounting for 67% (274,000) of malaria deaths worldwide in 2019.
  • Malaria is endemic in countries and continents around the equator, particularly Africa and parts of Asia, South America and Central America.
  • The majority of cases of malaria occur in Africa – approximately 94% of them. It is estimated to result in losses of US$12 billion a year due to increased healthcare costs, lost ability to work, and adverse effects on tourism.
  • Malaria used to ravage much of the world, but mosquito elimination techniques, accessibility to antimalarial treatments & healthcare, and environmental factors (mosquitos reproduce rapidly and are harder to control in tropical regions) have almost eliminated malaria in Europe, North America, the Middle East and parts of Asia.
  • Frequency of sickle cell carriers and sickle cell disease incidence is higher in malaria-endemic areas.

In this article, we’re looking not only at this deadly disease but also how marijuana could be valuable as a medical treatment for people suffering with malaria.

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What is Malaria?

Malaria is a disease caused by parasites that are transmitted to people through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes. Malaria is not a virus or form of bacteria.

There are two main types of malaria: simple or uncomplicated malaria, and severe or complicated malaria.

Symptoms of malaria include fever, tiredness, vomiting and headaches. In more severe cases, malaria can cause yellowing of the skin (jaundice), seizures, cerebral complications, coma and death. The signs and symptoms of malaria usually begin 8–25 days following infection.

How is Malaria Treated?

There are a number of antimalarial drugs available, but prevention also plays a huge part in eradicating malaria. Many travelers may be given a course of antibiotics such as doxycycline to prevent malaria. Mosquito control and eradication techniques such as pesticides, ovitraps and insecticide-treated nets are all useful in preventing and lowering transmission of malaria. Other simple prevention techniques include insect repellant and wearing long-sleeved clothing.

Simple malaria is effectively treated by artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs) such as Artesunate and amodiaquine (Coarsucam or ASAQ) and Artesunate and mefloquine (Artequin or ASMQ). ACTs are 90% effective for treating simple malaria.

Severe malaria has a high mortality rate, with 10% to 50% of cases resulting in death. In cases of severe malaria, the most common treatment methods include intravenous administration of artemisinins such as artesunate or quinine dihydrochloride. It is also important to monitor for low blood sugar, low blood potassium and poor breathing.

Although artemisinins are generally quite effective for the treatment of malaria, there are some forms of malaria with partial resistance to them emerging in Southeast Asia. Other than artemisinins, malaria is now resistant to other classes of antimalarial drugs. Sadly, the cost of ACTs may prevent their availability in developing countries. Moreover, resistance or partial resistance to ACTs may make their use unviable in countries like Cambodia and Thailand.

How Can Medical Marijuana Help Treat Malaria?

There is the sad story of Strain Hunter Franco Loja, who contracted cerebral malaria when looking for unusual landrace varieties in Africa and unfortunately passed away. To make matters even more tragic, he was researching cannabidiol (CBD) and its benefits in treating malaria, which could be of immense use for ACT-resistant parasites.

There is little in the way of research when it comes to using cannabis for the treatment of malaria. However, there is some promising preclinical research suggesting that CBD and medical marijuana could be useful for the treatment of malaria because:

  • CBD has neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory properties. CBD could be of particular use for post-malarial infection care, where the chances to contract neurological complications and cognitive impairments are high.
  • CBD and anandamide have been shown to increase the survival rate and rescue cognitive function in mice infected with cerebral malaria.
  • Terpenes and cannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), alpha-pinene and beta-caryophyllene have anti-inflammatory properties that could help treat pain. Terpenes could also be an interesting way of reducing the mosquito population, as they act as eco-friendly larvicides!
  • Cannabinoids can modulate the immune system and help reduce fever. Beta-caryophyllene, which is a CB2 receptor agonist, could be particularly useful for the treatment of malaria due to its pain killing, anti-inflammatory, fever reducing and anti-parasitic effects.
  • This study suggests that “CB2 modulates the traffic of immune cells, and that the use of antagonists for this receptor could be used as a potential therapeutic strategy against cerebral malaria.”
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Medical Cannabis and Malaria: Future Prospects

The idea of using cannabis to treat malaria is not new. Chinese medical texts suggest that cannabis can be used to treat malaria, and many cultures in Africa and Asia have indicated cannabis as a herbal remedy for malaria. The many terpenes found in cannabis could also potentially be useful as a natural insect repellent.

However, when it comes to the prevention or treatment of malaria, there is little definitive evidence suggesting that cannabis is of use. Unfortunately, as malaria affects the poorest people in the world, there is also little incentive (i.e. not a huge amount of profit to be made) when it comes to alternative research therapies.

However, as cannabis is abundantly available and can be grown very effectively in equatorial climates – on top of the fact that parasites can’t readily form resistance against cannabinoids –  its potential as an affordable alternative or adjunct to current therapies is huge. Short-term profits may be difficult to find, but in the long-term the cost of alleviating human misery could yield rewards far greater than any initial loss in investment.

Written by
Dipak Hemraj
Dipak Hemraj

Dipak Hemraj is a published author, grower, product maker, and Leafwell’s resident cannabis expert. From botany & horticulture to culture & economics, he wishes to help educate the public on why cannabis is medicine (or a “pharmacy in a plant”) and how it can be used to treat a plethora of health problems. Dipak wants to unlock the power of the plant, and see if there are specific cannabinoid-terpene-flavonoid profiles suitable for different conditions.

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