Singapore vulnerable to 'super malaria' but rapid spread unlikely

A "super malaria" parasite is spreading through South-east Asia at an alarming rate and Singapore is unlikely to keep it off its shores.
A "super malaria" parasite is spreading through South-east Asia at an alarming rate and Singapore is unlikely to keep it off its shores. PHOTO: REUTERS

A "super malaria" parasite is spreading through South-east Asia at an alarming rate and Singapore is unlikely to keep it off its shores.

But it is unlikely that there will be a rapid spread here, said Assistant Professor Rajesh Chandramohanadas from the Singapore University of Technology & Design.

That is because Singapore, declared malaria-free by the World Health Organisation in 1982, has only a small population of Anopheles mosquitoes - the carriers of malaria. "Hence, a rapid spread here would not be a major concern," said Prof Rajesh, who studies the biology of malaria parasites.

However, he noted that Singapore is particularly vulnerable and receptive to foreign infections, owing to the large migratory foreign workforce and the influx of travellers from neighbouring countries.

"With 6 per cent of total malaria-related deaths reported from the neighbouring South-east Asia region, Singapore lies equally vulnerable to these newer strains of malaria," he said.

This dangerous form of the parasite, that is transmitted by blood-sucking mosquitoes, cannot be killed with the main drugs currently used to treat the infectious disease, reported the BBC.

The strain was originally detected in western Cambodia in 2007, and experts are calling for action before it reaches other areas such as India or Africa, reported AFP.

"It spread like wildfire to Vietnam," Professor Arjen Dondorp, head of the Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit at Mahidol University in Bangkok, said.

The co-author of an article published on Thursday in the medical journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases added: "(The strain) is very fit and spreads very easily. This resistance is taking over. Cambodia already changed to a new drug, likely to last one or two years. Vietnam has to change now."

After its detection in Cambodia, the strain then spread to north-eastern Thailand, southern Laos and eastern Myanmar, a previous study by Prof Dondorp and colleagues said. "The fear is that it (will) spread further, to India and Africa," warned the professor.

Scientists at the Bangkok research unit warned there is a real danger of malaria becoming untreatable. About 212 million people are infected with malaria each year and the first-choice treatment is artemisinin with piperaquine. But artemisinin has become less effective over time and now, the parasite is resisting piperaquine too.

The treatment is failing around a third of the time in Vietnam and in some regions of Cambodia, it is as high as 60 per cent, according to Prof Dondorp. If similar resistance emerges in Africa, where around 92 per cent of malaria cases are reported, it would be catastrophic.

Dr Michael Chew, from the Wellcome Trust medical research charity, said: "The spread of this malaria 'superbug' strain... is alarming and has major implications for public health globally.

"Around 700,000 people a year die from drug-resistant infections, including malaria. If nothing is done, this could increase to millions... every year by 2050."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 24, 2017, with the headline 'S'pore vulnerable to 'super malaria' but rapid spread unlikely'. Print Edition | Subscribe