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New strain of malaria threatens millions

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
January 3rd, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Super-diseases have raged around the world since the development of drugs to treat them, but few are as deadly as malaria. What makes the disease "super" is its ability to develop resistance to drugs, no matter how powerful they are. Now, a new strain of drug-resistant malaria is developing in Southeast Asia and the race is on to develop a new cure. Unfortunately, swift development also brings danger.

BANGKOK, THAILAND (Catholic Online) - Malaria has been the scourge of civilization since ancient times; some historians have theorized that Alexander the Great may have been a victim of the disease. Today, malaria kills 2,000 people a day, mostly in Africa.

Malaria even manages to depress the economies of Africa in places where it is most prevalent, such is its mortality and impact on people's lives.

Malaria is caused by a parasite carried by the Anopheles mosquito which humans contract after being bitten by infected females of the species. The parasite can take several days before manifesting symptoms, and if left untreated it can kill.

Drugs exists which can kill the parasite, but now the parasite is developing resistance to those drugs as doctors are learning in Southeast Asia. The leading drug, for now, is artemisinin which can kill the parasite within 24 hours. Unfortunately, doctors are now seeing the drug take much longer to kill the parasite, often several days.

These are the early signs of resistance, and they're becoming increasingly common along the borders between Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, where ongoing conflict, poverty, and accessibility makes the fight difficult.

The worry among doctors, is that the artemisinin-resistant malaria will spread.

In the 1990's, African malaria became resistant to another drug, chloroquine. That resistance led to a spike in mortality, which resulted in millions of deaths. Doctors in the field felt powerless as they watched the new resistant strain of malaria slowly spread from Asia to Africa over the course of the preceding 20 years.

Now, they worry they are seeing the same thing happen with artemisinin.

The next step, aside from doing all they can to slow the spread of the resistant strain of the disease, is to develop a new drug. However, the development process for new drugs also carries risks.

Recently, the FDA expedited testing of a new drug to fight antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis, and it turned out the cure proved to be worse than the disease. The new drug is suspected in as many as nine deaths in the initial human test group versus just two in the control group.

With expedited cures proving dangerous, and time running out, doctors find themselves caught between the immediate need for a new drug, and the dangers of rushing the process. Both routes could cost lives.

Finally, added to the complication are smarter mosquitoes in Africa. Researchers have found, although the study was limited, that mosquitoes living in an area with insecticide-treated nets, have changed their behavior to seek victims during different times when they are less likely to be protected by mosquito nets. This means more bites and more infections.

The perfect storm is brewing with resistant malaria, smarter mosquitoes, and long and sometimes dangerous development processes for new drugs. Doctors are watching. If the drug resistant malaria of Southeast Asia reaches the dense populations of equatorial Africa, millions could die.

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