Malaria first passed to humans from gorillas thousands of years ago, finds new research.
The parasite that causes the lethal infection has been traced back to the animals who passed it on to humans, said the study, published in the science journal, Nature.
This latest discovery could boost the development of a vaccine for malaria, one of the world's biggest killers of children.
It drives forward scientist’s understanding of how infectious diseases such as HIV, SARS, and bird and pig flu make the leap from animals to humans.
News of the discovery comes after Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg yesterday pledged that Britain will lead the fight against malaria announcing a £500 million fund to tackle the disease.
Using techniques developed for analysing HIV, the researchers identified the malaria parasites infecting the apes. Scientists examined 2,500 gorilla droppings collected in Africa and found DNA evidence of the germ, Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes malaria in humans. P. falciparum is the most deadly type of malaria infection. It is most common in Africa, south of the Sahara, where it causes most of the region’s high death rate, according to the World Health Organisation
But when the germ made the leap from gorillas to humans remains a mystery. It is also unclear whether apes are still a source of ongoing human infections.
"Understanding where a human pathogen, like Plasmodium falciparum, originated can be an important step in learning how to prevent and treat the disease that it causes," said Dr Beatrice Hahn from the University of Alabama, who led the research.
"Like AIDS, malaria is of primate origin. Studies of the primate precursors of HIV have unravelled many aspects of AIDS pathogenesis. I expect the same to happen when the biology of the gorilla precursor of P. falciparum is compared to that of its human counterpart.”
Speaking at the UN summit in New York, yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said he was raising UK aid from its current £150 million in a bid to halve deaths in 10 African countries. He said there needed to be much greater effort to ensure that countries honour their aid promises. On his first major foreign trip, he said that despite budget pressures at home, it was morally right that Britain led the way in helping the world's poorest.
He told the summit: “In Africa, a child dies from this disease — this easily preventable disease — every 45 seconds. “