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Parasitic Infections

Diseases caused by protozoan (type of microbe) and helminth (type of worm) parasites are among the leading causes of death and disease in tropical and subtropical regions of the world. Efforts to control the vector (carrier) of these diseases are often difficult due to pesticide resistance, concerns regarding damage to the environment, and lack of adequate support to apply existing vector control methods.

There currently are no vaccines to prevent or control the spread of parasitic diseases. Thus, control of these diseases depends heavily on the availability of drugs. Unfortunately, most existing treatments are either not completely effective or they are toxic (poisonous) to people.

In a number of cases, even safe and effective drugs are failing as a result of the selection and spread of drug resistant types or parasites. This is best dramatized by the global spread of drug-resistant Plasmodium falciparum, the protozoan responsible for the most lethal form of malaria. Therefore, we urgently need new treatments.

Research Activities

Ongoing Research

NIAID research on parasitic infections is targeted at developing a better understanding of the pathogenesis of infections and developing more effective prevention approaches, diagnostics, and treatments for them.


Researchers are applying new technologies to develop cost effective, sensitive, and specific diagnostics, applicable to field situations in the tropics, and to test for disease pathology, infectious agents, and response to drugs and vaccines. Such tests help scientists learn about disease epidemiology as well as identify the risk of disease. Researchers are also developing better diagnostics to detect drug-resistant pathogens, improve treatments, and inform national and regional control policies.

Drug Discovery and Development

Researchers are performing basic biochemical and molecular studies to identify enzymes, metabolic pathways, and structures in pathogens that are targets for intervention. Funding of genome initiatives and databases has expanded the number of chemotherapeutic and vaccine targets. Researchers are also studying how existing drugs act and what causes drug resistance. To assess the efficacy and safety of possible drugs, they will study them in animal models and in field and clinic settings .

Immunological Intervention

Scientists are using basic and applied research to identify the role of the human immune response in protection and disease. Such studies provide the foundation for developing vaccines that protect a person from infection and disease as well as for the design of intervention strategies that block immunopathological processes. Moreover, these studies have wider applicability as parasite systems have served as important models for the role of immune cells and factors in other diseases.


Basic and applied research on arthropod vectors, such as mosquitoes, and their interactions with pathogens and humans are underway to develop tools to interrupt pathogen transmission to humans. Scientists are placing special emphasis on vector ecology, the pathogen-vector interaction, population genetics, and genetic and genomic studies. They hope to develop novel, environmentally sound insect control strategies.

Intramural Lab

The Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases conducts basic and applied research on the prevention, control, and treatment of a variety of parasitic and bacterial diseases of global importance.


A critical aspect of our future ability to control parasitic diseases will depend on the skills and expertise of scientists, physicians and other healthcare workers, and public health specialists working in endemic regions. Therefore, strengthening the research capability of scientists in their own countries is an important focus of NIAID efforts.

NIAID researchers work closely with national and international organizations involved in parasitic disease research and control. NIAID was a founding member of the Multilateral Initiative on Malaria, which emphasizes strengthening research capacity against malaria in Africa. NIAID collaborators include: the United States Agency for International Development, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The World Bank, The Rockefeller Foundation, the European Commission, and the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health.



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Last Updated November 05, 2010