Scientists are warning that the rapid spread of “super malaria” in Southeast Asia has grown into an imminent global threat.
The strain of malaria emerged in Cambodia and has since spread through parts of Thailand, Laos, and most recently, southern Vietnam.
This dangerous and potentially deadly parasite cannot be killed with the main anti-malaria drugs, and scientists at Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Bangkok warn that there is a real danger of malaria becoming untreatable altogether.
“We think it is a serious threat”, said Professor Arjen Dondorp. “It is alarming that this strain is spreading so quickly through the whole region and we fear it can spread further [and eventually] jump to Africa.”
About 212 million people are infected with malaria each year. It is caused by a parasite that is spread by blood-sucking mosquitoes and is a major killer of children.
The first choice treatment for malaria is artemisinin in combination with piperaquine.
But, in a letter, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, the researchers detail what they’ve identified as a “recent sinister development” that has seen resistance to the drug artemisinin emerge, and further explain that the parasite has now evolved to resist piperaquine too.
There have been “alarming rates of failure”, the letter says.
Professor Dondorp said the treatment was failing around a third of the time in Vietnam while in some regions of Cambodia the failure rate was closer to 60%. Resistance to the drugs would be catastrophic in Africa, where 92% of all malaria cases happen.
There is a push to eliminate malaria in the Greater Mekong sub-region before it is too late.
“It’s a race against the clock – we have to eliminate it before malaria becomes untreatable again and we see a lot of deaths. If I’m honest, I’m quite worried,” said Professor Dondorp.
Michael Chew, from the Wellcome Trust medical research charity, added, “the spread of this malaria ‘superbug’ strain, resistant to the most effective drug we have, is alarming and has major implications for public health globally. Around 700,000 people a year die from drug-resistant infections, including malaria. If nothing is done, this could increase to millions of people every year by 2050.”
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