AsianScientist (Nov. 5, 2012) – Growing resistance to a key anti-malarial drug derived from a shrub used in traditional Chinese medicine is threatening to roll back gains made in combating the disease, said malaria experts at a health conference in Sydney, Australia last week.
Delegates at the Malaria 2012: Saving Lives in the Asia-Pacific conference emphasized the importance of strong political leadership and regional coordination after discussing resistance to anti-malarial drugs in the region’s fight against the disease.
“Anti-malarial drug resistance is one of the greatest challenges to continued success in controlling and eliminating malaria in the Asia-Pacific,” the Director of the Global Malaria Program of the UN World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Robert Newman, told the gathering.
Malaria, which is caused by a parasite transmitted to humans through the bites of infected mosquitoes, infects some 216 million people and kills nearly 650,000 people around the world every year.
The Asia-Pacific region, which includes 20 malaria-endemic countries, accounted for about 30 million of these cases, and 42,000 of the deaths. India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Myanmar, and Papua New Guinea bear the largest burden of the disease.
The declining efficiency of therapies based on artemisinin – an extract from the sweet wormwood bush and currently the frontline treatment recommended by the WHO for the most deadly species of the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum – raises concern that resistance might spread to India and then Africa, making elimination of the disease impossible.
Artemisinin was first discovered by Tu Youyou during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s when the Chinese government launched a clandestine military research program aimed at finding a remedy for the deadly scourge. She won this year’s Lasker DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for the discovery.
However, artemisinin resistance has been detected in Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. In April this year, two studies were published in The Lancet and Science describing the growing malarial resistance at the Thai-Myanmar border.
“It will be critical to galvanize political action and secure investments to implement an emergency response plan for the Greater Mekong Subregion,” Dr. Newman told delegates, referring to the Southeast Asian river that passes through the countries where artemisinin resistance has emerged.
At the conference, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr pledged more than AU$100 million over the next four years to support malaria programs in the Asia-Pacific region.
Source: UN; Photo: The Global Fund/John Rae.
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