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Drug-Resistant Malaria Spreading to Africa?

Malaria has long been among the most dangerous diseases in the world. The toll is enormous: Every year, a quarter of a billion people are infected, and an estimated 655,000 die, many of them children in Sub-Saharan Africa. The arrival of an effective drug, Artemisinin and an influx of aid money have helped lower the death rate by about 25 percent since 2000, but there is still much work to be done. (An interesting side note: Artemisinin was developed by Mao Zedong to facilitate warfighting in jungles during the Vietnam War and is based on an ancient Chinese cure. It only reached international markets in the past decade.)

New studies coming out of malaria-infested western Kenya, however, show a rapid reduction in the effectiveness of these treatments. The Kenyan newspaper the Daily Nation has details:

Data collected by local and foreign scientists in western Kenya shows that it is taking much longer to treat malaria in some patients than before using first line medicines.

Two of the studies, whose reports will be presented next week at the annual general meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in Atlanta, USA, show that genes responsible for slowing down of the two first line medicines AL and DHA-PIP are similar to those creating resistance in parts of Asia.

“This study indicates for the first time that these genes are associated with reduced response to artemisinins in samples collected from western Kenya.”

Drug-resistant malaria has been spreading in Southeast Asia, but the impact on Africa, where a vast majority of the world’s malaria deaths occur, would be even greater. The likely culprits are fake or low-dose malaria drugs, which enable the parasite to adapt. Time:

Many of the circulating lower-quality drugs were tracked back to manufacturers in southern China, identified by traces of pollen indigenous to that region, which were found in the malaria medications. Makers from China have a history of counterfeiting drugs, as the U.K.’s Guardian reports: in 2001, Chinese authorities arrested Nigerian and Chinese men for producing fake versions of another malaria drug, halofantrine.

This isn’t the only bad news. A potential malaria vaccine is proving much less effective than originally thought.

Improving public health in African and Southeast Asian swamps and jungles is about more than just saving lives. Disease can pose a security threat in a globalized world of cheap international air travel. Unlike Ebola or other potential global super-plagues, resistant malaria is unlikely to trigger a violent global pandemic. Malaria is a quiet killer, blighting hopes and frustrating efforts at progress in the countries where it is found. Recent years have seen more attention among rich world charities and government aid organizations being paid to the devastating, common diseases of the tropics. That’s a good thing and, clearly, much more work needs to be done to cope with one of humanity’s greatest scourges.

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