Drug-resistant malaria can spread fast warns expert
Geneva, January 13, 2011
Drug-resistant malaria could spread from southeast Asia to Africa within months, putting millions of children's lives at risk, a leading expert warned.
Nicholas White, professor of tropical medicine at Mahidol University in Bangkok, called for a war before it is too late on the malaria strain resistant to the drug artemisinin that first emerged along the Thai-Cambodian border in 2007.
This longer-to-treat form of malaria is suspected of breaking out along the Thai-Myanmar frontier and in a province of Vietnam, where tests are under way to confirm it, but the great fear is of it reaching Africa.
"It is a time bomb, it is ticking. It has the potential of killing millions of African children," White told Reuters.
A migrant worker who doesn't even show symptoms could spread the resistant parasite beyond Asia, he said.
Earlier, the World Health Organisation (WHO) launched a $175 million annual plan to contain and prevent the global spread of the artemisinin-resistant parasite beyond the Mekong region.
The WHO, which said last month the world could stop malaria deaths by 2015 with massive investment, called for faster research and development of new anti-malarial drugs.
But White, widely credited with helping to first identify the resistant form, called the WHO plan "somewhat anodyne".
"I think we should fight this as a war. We are too fractured as a community," he told an experts meeting at WHO headquarters.
"What seems to be lacking is a sense of urgency. People talk in terms of years. I think we should be thinking in terms of months. Time is crucial," he said.
Artemisinin, derived from sweet wormwood, or the Artemisia annua plant, is the most potent drug available against malaria, especially when used in artemisinin combination therapy (ACT), which links it with other drugs.
"ACTs are the gold standard. They are the most effective treatment for falciparum malaria, the most deadly form of malaria," WHO director-general Margaret Chan said in a speech.
"The consequences of widespread resistance to artemisinins would be catastrophic."
Resistance to previous generations of anti-malarial drugs such as chloroquine spread from the same Mekong region to India and then Africa, killing millions, experts say.