The World Health Organisation vowed on Friday to intensify the fight against malaria in Asia and the Pacific amid growing signs of the disease developing greater resistance to commonly used drugs. A new drug-resistant malaria strain found near the Cambodian and Thai border was threatening global efforts to control and eradicate the disease, WHO said.
In many parts of the world, malaria deaths have been declining, particularly in Zambia where fatalities have fallen by two-thirds since 2000. But the campaign to eradicate the disease is at risk from a new strain of drug-resistant malaria first detected in 2007 in the Mekong area, Shin Young-soo, regional director of WHO Western Pacific area, said in a statement.
This strain of malaria that is increasingly resistant to artemisinin, the most effective drug available to fight the disease. "Time is of the essence here. We have to act now to contain this problem within the Mekong region. It must not be allowed to spread and become a regional and international threat," Shin said at the WHO headquarters in Manila.
"Measures such as early malaria diagnosis, effective treatment and high quality surveillance need to be maintained and funding sustained," Shin added. "New tools will need to be developed if malaria elimination is to be achieved through the region."
WHO also expressed concern over the rampant use of low-quality and counterfeit drugs in some countries in the Mekong region and the improper use of medicines such as antibiotics and antimalarials, including arteminisin.
WHO said it is closely working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other donor agencies to contain the drug-resistant malaria in the Mekong region. The initiative is part of a global anti-malaria programme called 'Counting malaria out' which will kick off on Saturday with the aim of achieving near-zero deaths from the mosquito-borne disease by 2015.
Among the malaria-endemic countries in Asia and the Pacific are Cambodia, China, South Korea, Malaysia, Laos, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Vietnam.
WHO said that every year, there are 250 million cases of malaria infection around the world, resulting in nearly one million deaths. In the Western Pacific region, more than 300,000 malaria cases were confirmed in 2007, with 939 deaths.
"We have to act now to contain this problem within the Mekong region. It must not be allowed to spread and become a regional and international threat," Shin said.
Latest clinical tests on about 20-50 people infected with the new malaria strain and treated with artemisinin confirmed that it was becoming resistant, said the WHO's Eva Christophel, a malaria expert. "We have obtained scientific evidence that this is very unusual," saidChristophel. "This is really worrying."
In most malaria cases, people are freed of the parasite in their blood after only three days of artemisinin intake, said Christophel. But for people who were infected with the new strain, the reaction to the drug was much slower.