Cannabis and Malaria: Can Weed Help to Treat This Disease?
January 23, 2019

Cannabis and Malaria: Can Weed Help to Treat This Disease?

Could marijuana help to treat this dangerous, tropical disease?
Nicole Richter Nicole Richter / Updated on January 23, 2019

Cannabis and Malaria

Malaria is a potentially fatal condition caused by a parasite carried by a specific type of mosquito. It is prevalent in tropical areas including Africa, Asia, Central and South America, some Caribbean and Pacific islands, and areas of the Middle East.

When an infected mosquito bites a human, the parasites are carried to the liver where they grow and multiply. They then enter the bloodstream, growing inside red blood cells and destroying them. This produces what is known as ‘daughter parasites,’ and the process continues, causing a variety of symptoms. When a mosquito bites and feeds on an infected person’s blood, they take up these parasites along with their meal, allowing the disease to be spread from person to person.

One of the most significant problems with malaria is that many strains are now becoming drug-resistant, making it harder to prevent and treat this life-threatening disease. This issue has led scientists to begin investigating alternative treatments for malaria, including a number of plant-based medicines. One such medicine is cannabis, a plant which has been used as a traditional remedy for malaria for centuries. But does it really work? Let’s see what the research has to say.

Why We Need Effective Treatments for Malaria

Malaria is a killer. According to statistics published on the World Health Organization website, there were 216 million cases of malaria in 2016 alone, with as many as 445,000 people dying from the disease. A shocking 80% of these deaths occurred in just 15 countries, all of which were in sub-Saharan Africa with the exception of India.

The majority of these countries are poor and do not have the budget to develop effective malaria prophylaxis programs or treatment strategies. The most at risk are the very young, pregnant women, and the elderly. These vulnerable people are more likely to suffer severe symptoms and complications as a result of malaria infection.

Malaria can be usually prevented with the use of certain prophylactic medications including chloroquine and mefloquine. However, some of the people most at risk of infection do not have easy access to these drugs.

Another worrying issue is that in many countries where malaria is prevalent, these drugs are becoming ineffective. Chloroquine resistance is now widespread in most malarial regions, and mefloquine resistance is rapidly spreading across South-East Asia, an area popular with travelers from all over the world.

It is obvious that we now need to take a novel approach to find newer, more effective treatments for malaria, as well as ways to prevent it from spreading and claiming more lives in the future.

Malaria Symptoms and Complications

Malaria occurs when a host is infected with a type of parasite known as Plasmodium, carried by the Anopheles genus of mosquito. The symptoms of malaria usually begin around 7–18 days after infection, although they can take as long as a year to appear. The symptoms of malaria include:

  • High fever
  • Hot and cold shivers
  • Sweating
  • Headaches
  • Muscle pain
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

These symptoms can be difficult to recognize as malaria as they are very similar to the symptoms of influenza. However, if untreated, malaria can lead to serious complications. These complications include anemia, jaundice, respiratory distress, and kidney failure. In some cases, malaria can affect the brain causing a condition known as cerebral malaria. Cerebral malaria causes the brain to swell, leading to symptoms such as fits, coma, and brain damage.

Can Cannabis Treat Malaria?

Cannabis sativa has been used as a traditional, herbal remedy for malaria for many years. It was mentioned in the 16th-century Chinese text Compendium of Materia Medica, with the leaves of the plant being used as an anti-malarial among many other things. Marijuana is also thought to be used as an herbal medicine for malaria in other South-East Asian countries such as Cambodia.

Another country where weed has traditionally been used to treat malaria is Argentina. In this case, the root bark is used to make an infusion or taken dry to relieve the fever associated with the disease. According to the literature, a dose of 30g per liter of water is recommended for infusion, and 15g is recommended if using the dry herb.

Cannabis’ ability to reduce fever was also noted by the 12th-century Persian philosopher Ibn Sina (widely known as Avicenna), who wrote about its use in the Canon of Medicine.

So, it appears that cannabis may be able to relieve some of the symptoms of malaria, but is there any proof? Let’s review some of the modern research on the herb and whether it can be used to treat malaria.

Modern Research on Cannabis and Malaria

There are not many studies on cannabis for malaria, but what little evidence exists is positive. One 2018 study found that mice infected with malaria survived longer when treated with marijuana than their untreated counterparts.

The infected mice were given feed containing cannabis leaves, twigs, and seeds making up 40%, 20%, 10%, or 1% of their daily diet. This was compared with mice fed with standard feed to act as a control.

Seven days after infection, all of the mice treated with cannabis were still alive, compared with just 60% of the control group. After 14 days, 60% of the mice treated with 40% cannabis were still alive, compared with 20% of those treated with 20% cannabis. No subjects from the groups consuming lower concentrations of marijuana or the control group survived to the two-week mark.

Although cannabis did appear to have some antimalarial activity, it was still not as effective as the drug chloroquine. As a comparison, infected mice treated with this medication survived an average 17.2 days, while those treated with 40% cannabis survived an average 15.2 days.

The authors of the study surmised that further research was required to confirm whether marijuana is effective as an anti-malarial. They suggested that although phytocannabinoids found in the plant may have the potential to treat malaria, terpenes may also play a role, and unfortunately, some of these are not activated by eating the herb. They also suggest that using the flowers as well as leaves, stems, and seeds may increase its efficacy.

Can CBD Treat Malaria?

Another research study has found that CBD may have other benefits for patients with malaria. CBD, or cannabidiol, is one of the phytocannabinoids found in marijuana plants. It is believed to anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and neuroprotective effects, making it useful for treating a range of physical and psychological conditions.

The aim of this 2015 study was to investigate the effects of CBD on cerebral malaria. Mice were infected with the Plasmodium parasite and then treated with CBD at a dose of 30mg/kg/day. The researchers then assessed the animals’ memory and anxiety levels at different stages of the disease.

The infected mice displayed symptoms such as decreased memory and increased anxiety throughout the study. However, these effects were mitigated by CBD. The researchers also found that the CBD-treated mice had lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines in their brains compared to controls.

The authors suggest that due to its neuroprotective properties, CBD could help to reduce cognitive defects in the case of cerebral malaria. However, it should be noted that these mice were also treated with anti-malarial drugs during the study, so CBD is indicated as an adjunctive treatment rather than a sole solution to the problem.

Cannabis and Malaria: Final Thoughts

Marijuana has been used by healers for centuries as a treatment for malaria, primarily to reduce symptoms such as fever. In recent years, increasing rates of drug-resistance have led to a resurgence in interest in the antimalarial properties of weed. Modern research suggests that there could be some evidence for this traditional use of the herb, although further studies are required to confirm exactly how it works.

Until we know for sure how effective cannabis is as a malaria treatment, it is essential that we continue to be responsible when traveling to malarial regions. If you have an exotic holiday planned, familiarize yourself with the travel advice for the area before you leave. If you need to use anti-malarial drugs, be sure to take them exactly as directed and complete the whole course. Take care to avoid being bitten by using mosquito repellents and nets, and wearing long sleeves and pants, especially in the evenings. Finally, avoid areas of standing water such as lakes and ponds where mosquitoes are likely to breed.

If you have visited a malarial zone, watch out for flu-like symptoms for up to a year after you return, and get them checked out immediately. If you are diagnosed with malaria, you could try using cannabis to relieve some of your symptoms, but remember to follow your physician’s advice closely too!

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