A team of scientists coordinated by the World Health Organization (WHO) has launched “ground-breaking research” into drug-resistant malaria in Myanmar, despite reports that funds to help fight the disease had slowed over the past two years.
Scientists from the University of Maryland in the United States, working as a part of the WHO team, identified molecular markers that could assist in tracking the spread of drug-resistant malaria in Myanmar.
“This emerging form of artemisinin-resistant malaria, while it’s still relatively rare, is already causing treatment failures where it first appeared, in Cambodia,” Dr Christopher Plowe, the principal investigator, said in a statement issued by the University of Maryland.
Artemisinin is a major component in the current treatment of malaria patients.
“The concern is that we’ll lose this drug, at an immense cost of human life,” Dr Plowe said.
The scientists have received US federal funding to use the new knowledge within Myanmar to identify drug-resistant incidences, and train Myanmar investigators in the latest laboratory technology.
“Myanmar has about three percent of the Southeast Asian population, but about 20pc of the region’s malaria,” said Dr Plowe.
Under his leadership, specialists in Myanmar have already begun using the markers.
“We are now trying to validate these markers in our research in Myanmar,” he said. “We want to focus limited resources on artemisinin resistance to try to stop it in its tracks before it spreads.”
The development was announced just days before the WHO said the global plateauing of anti-malaria funding in the past two years was a major concern. The finding was published in The World Malaria Report 2012, released by the organisation on Monday, December 17.
The WHO cited the example of Long-Lasting Insecticidal Nets (LLINs), saying that the number distributed in endemic sub-Saharan African countries between 2010 and 2012 had fallen by more than half, from 145 million to just 66 million. The nets are considered a vital frontline preventative measure against malaria.
“This means that many households will be unable to replace existing bed nets when required, exposing more people to the potentially deadly disease,” the report said.
Artemisinin is the leading drug for malaria treatment but resistance has been detected in Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, according to the WHO. Scientists believe that a major contributing factor to resistance is that artemisinin has been used without combination therapy.
Dr Plowe warned that drug-resistant malaria could bring devastating consequences for Myanmar and other countries.
“In addition to a loss of human life, if we lost this most important tool against malaria, the recent momentum for global malaria eradication could quickly evaporate. It takes a long time to develop a drug, and we have nothing on the shelf to replace this class of drugs.”