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Rogue malaria at doorstep

Hong Kong, April 6 (Reuters): A malaria strain increasingly resistant to the most effective drug has spread along the Thai-Myanmarese border and may reach India and Africa unless ways are found to contain it, researchers have said.

A 10-year study has found that those infected took longer to get better when treated with combination therapies containing artemisinin, recognised as the best anti-malarial drug, one of the authors said.

The findings were published today in the UK-based medical journal The Lancet.

“Malaria strains resistant to artemisinin (have been) found in the border of Thailand and Myanmar,” said Nicholas White at the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit, Bangkok.

“The implications are that they either spread or emerged newly there.”

The spread of the drug-resistant malaria has been blamed on the incorrect use of artemisinin and fake and substandard versions of the drug, which is derived from the sweet wormwood shrub.

White said stronger action was needed from governments and international health agencies to stop such misuse and corruption. “We need considerable support for Myanmar — leadership, better intelligence on where (drug-resistant malaria) is spreading,” he said.

“We need serious financial support to contain it in this region, otherwise it is going to spread to India and Africa.”

Between 2001 and 2010, White and his team studied 3,202 patients infected by Plasmodium falciparum, a species of the malaria parasite that can cause the severest form of the disease, called malignant malaria. They found that the standard treatment containing artemisinin took significantly longer to clear the parasites from the patients’ bodies.

“None of the patients died but the drugs (were) not working as well as they did before,” White said.

“If you have life-threatening malaria, the best treatment is artesunate (a derivative of artemisinin). Compared with quinine, it reduces death by a third. We could lose that advantage.”

White and his colleagues do not know if the malaria strain now spreading in Myanmar is linked to the one that emerged in Cambodia eight years ago. They will analyse the parasites’ genes to see if they are related.