'Super malaria' spreading through SE Asia, poses global threat

Malaria infected mosquitoes ready for dissection in the lab's manufacturing facility during vaccine production in Sanaria, Inc. of Rockville, Maryland. PHOTO: AFP/SANARIA INC

BANGKOK - A "super malaria" parasite is spreading through South-east Asia at an alarming rate and poses a global threat, scientists have warned.

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 Cambodia in 2007, and experts are calling for action before it reaches other areas such as India or Africa, reported AFP.

"It spread like a 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 (Sept 22) in the medical journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases added: "It started 10 years ago in western Cambodia. It 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 western Cambodia in 2007, the strain then spread to northeastern Thailand, southern Laos and eastern Myanmar, a previous study by Prof Dondorp and colleagues said.

"The fear is that it spreads further, to India and Africa," warned Prof Dondorp.

Scientists at the research unit in Bangkok warned that there is a real danger of malaria becoming untreatable.

"We think it is a serious threat," Prof Dondorp told the BBC. "It is alarming that this strain is spreading so quickly through the whole region and we fear it can spread further (and eventually) jump to Africa."

About 212 million people are infected with malaria each year and the first choice treatment is artemisinin in combination with piperaquine.

However, artemesinin has become less effective over time and now, the parasite has evolved to resist piperaquine too, with "alarming rates of failure" for treatment, the letter said.

The treatment was failing around a third of the time in Vietnam and in some regions of Cambodia, it was as high as 60 per cent, according to Prof Dondorp.

If similar resistance emerged in Africa, where around 92 per cent of malaria cases are reported, it would be catastrophic.

"It's a race against the clock - we have to eliminate it before malaria becomes untreatable again and we see a lot of deaths," Prof Dondorp said. "If I'm honest, I'm quite worried."

Dr Michael Chew, from the Wellcome Trust medical research charity, said: "The spread of this malaria 'superbug' strain, resistant to the most effective drug we have, 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 of people every year by 2050," he said.

For specialists, the emergence of the new strain in South-east Asia is worrying, even though the number of cases is limited, reported AFP.

Two waves of malaria resistant to standard treatments appeared in the 1950s and 60s in South-east Asia and spread to India and Africa, where they caused millions of deaths.

Prof Dondorp chairs the steering committee for a large regional malaria grant from the Global Fund, a financing organisation, in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar with a budget of US$243 million (S$327.03 million) over the next three years.

He advocates treatment at an early stage of the disease, which will require community malaria workers in even the most remote areas at risk.

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