Global health experts worry that a new breed of malaria that has arisen in South Asia could reverse trends in the fight against the disease, since it has proven resistant to the drugs usually used to treat malaria infections.
Cases of malaria are currently treated with a drug called artemisinin, which typically clears the Plasmodium parasite that causes malaria’s symptoms from humans within about 24 hours. However, a new strain of the disease has sprung up on the Thailand-Myannmar border that has shown the ability to cling to its host for three days or more after the administration of treatment. Should this form of malaria spread, the results could be catastrophic:
“We know what will happen in Africa when resistance is bad because we’ve been there before in the 1990s with chloroquine (another anti-malarial drug) … millions of deaths,” [malaria researcher Dr Francois Nosten] warned.
“We must prevent artemisinin resistance reaching Africa, but we also need to control it for the people in Asia – for their future.”
Twenty years passed between the evolution of a strain of malaria resistant to the then-prevelant treatment of choloroquine in the same South Asian region before it migrated to Africa. While the disease does eventually fall to arteminsin treatment still, the inability of the patient to find relief from malaria’s high fevers is likely to raise the mortality rate among those infected with the new strain. In 2010, malaria caused the deaths of an estimated 660,000 people, with Africa having the highest infection rate of any continent.
That number has fallen in recent years, thanks to a concerted effort to halt the spread of malaria and other diseases by programs such as the Global Fund and the United States’ PEPFAR. However, the gains that have been made since a funding surge from 2004-2009 are proving fragile as budgets have leveled off. The World Health Organization’s World Malaria Report 2012 warned of the potential for backsliding as funding for anti-malarial bed nets, the best prevention for infection, has frozen.
Researchers in the region continue to strive towards new and improved drugs to treat malaria amid the uptick in new cases. Whether the research will yield results in time to halt the progress of new malarial strains is yet to be seen.