Expert says drug-resistant malaria could spawn global health ‘nightmare scenario’

By David Ferguson
Wednesday, January 2, 2013 12:50 EDT
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The rise of drug-resistant malaria in the border region between Thailand and Myanmar could presage a global health crisis, say some scientists. According to NBCNews.com, millions of people worldwide could die if the new strain of the parasitic disease follows historic routes of transmission, prompting a need for swift action on the part of world health officials.

Dr. Francois Nosten has been working with malaria patients in the border zone between Thailand and Myanmar since 1986. He operates a string of clinics along both sides of the Moi River, which marks the porous border between Thailand and the military dictatorship of Myanmar.

Years of political upheaval, grinding poverty and large numbers of refugees and migrants have made this region a literal breeding ground for new mutations of malaria, which is neither a virus nor bacteria, but a single-celled parasite that is transmitted via mosquito bite.

Nosten is seeing more and more patients whose cases of malaria are proving difficult to cure with the world’s current top anti-malaria drug, artemisinin. When the last popular malaria drug, chloroquine, and all other major malaria medicines began to lose their efficacy against the disease, the resistance first appeared in this region.

The appearance of new, drug-resistant malaria here could mean “that all the progress of the last 10 to 15 years will be lost,” he warned. “Now the resistance is here, we worry that we are running out of time.”

Currently, malaria kills around 655,000 people a year, many of them children in Africa. Nosten warned that if the front-line drug against malaria becomes ineffective, the results could be devastating.

“The nightmare scenario is that the resistance will travel,” he said. “We know what will happen in Africa when resistance is bad because we’ve been there before in the 1990s with chloroquine…millions of deaths. We must prevent artemisinin resistance reaching Africa, but we also need to control it for the people in Asia – for their future.”

It took less than 20 years for the chloroquine-resistant malaria to make its way from Asia to Africa. Nosten said that he is now in a race with malaria, to attempt to find new medicines and treatments before his “nightmare scenario” can unfold.

Artemisinin was once a fast-acting, effective treatment with no side effects that cured malaria in 90 precent of patients. That was in 2009. By 2010, efficacy had dropped to 60 to 70 percent. Now it hovers at around 50. Nosten worries that the resistance could travel faster than anticipated, and while some scientists argue that the drug is still effective at higher doses, he sees no room to be complacent.

“We have to respond quickly, not next year or three years’ time. It’s now or probably it will be too late,” he said. “It’s hugely important to understand what’s going on and contain it if we can. We need to try things. We need to explore. It’s like exploring new territories in malaria.”

Watch video about this story, embedded via NBC News, below:

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[image via Shutterstock]

David Ferguson
David Ferguson
David Ferguson is an editor at Raw Story. He was previously writer and radio producer in Athens, Georgia, hosting two shows for Georgia Public Broadcasting and blogging at Firedoglake.com and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book.
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