US experts are raising the alarm over the spread of drug-resistant malaria in several Southeast Asian countries, endangering major global gains in fighting the mosquito-borne disease that kills more than 600,000 people annually.
While the communicable disease wreaks its heaviest toll in Africa, it is in nations along the Mekong River, where the most serious threat to treating it has emerged.
The availability of therapies using the drug artemisinin has helped cut global malaria deaths by a quarter in the past decade. However, resistance to it emerged on the Thai-Cambodia border in 2003, and has since been confirmed in Vietnam and Myanmar too.
It has also been detected in southwest China and suspected as far away as Guyana and Suriname, according to a new report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
The report warns that could be a health catastrophe in the making, as no alternative anti-malarial drug is on the horizon. The WHO is warning that what seems to be a localized threat could easily get out of control and have serious implications for global health.
“Absent elimination of the malaria parasite in the Mekong, it is only a matter of time before artemisinin resistance becomes the global norm, reversing the recent gains,” former US Naval Medical Research Center commander Christopher Daniel wrote in the report for a conference at the Washington think tank yesterday.
The same happened with the drug chloroquine, which helped eliminate malaria from Europe, North America, the Caribbean, parts of Asia and South and Central America during the 1950s.
Resistance first began appearing on the Thai-Cambodia border, and by the early 1990s it was virtually useless as an anti-malarial drug in much of the world.
Myanmar accounts for about three-quarters of malaria infections and deaths in the Mekong region, the report says.