Drug-resistant malaria is spreading across Southeast Asia, study warns
Drug-resistant strains of malaria are spreading across Southeast Asia, raising fears of a "potential global health emergency," two new studies have found.
The reports were published Monday in The Lancet, warning that a multi-drug-resistant strain had evolved and was spreading across Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
The new findings come as countries and health experts struggle to fight the parasitic disease. There have been some successes -- Algeria and Argentina were declared malaria-free in May -- but in other places, cases have been rising significantly.
The evolution of the resistant strains in Southeast Asia has had "disastrous consequences," researchers said -- they have rendered a widely-used drug essentially ineffective, leading to treatment failures at "alarmingly high rates."
The drug, dihydroartemisinin-piperaquine (DHA-PPQ), has now reached a 62% failure rate in western Cambodia, 27% in northeastern Cambodia, 53% in southwestern Vietnam, and 87% in northeastern Thailand, researchers said in a statement.
The original strain of resistant malaria first spread across western Cambodia in 2008. Since then, it has evolved and mutated into several new subgroups of resistant parasites, said the studies, which were conducted by several institutes including the Wellcome Sanger Institute and the University of Oxford.
The speed at which the subgroups have spread to neighboring countries suggest "enhanced fitness" and "an increased survival advantage," said the researchers, who urged countries to stop using DHA-PPQ.
"This highly successful resistant parasite strain is capable of invading new territories and acquiring new genetic properties, raising the terrifying prospect that it could spread to Africa where most malaria cases occur, as resistance to chloroquine did in the 1980s, contributing to millions of deaths," said Olivo Miotto, a researcher from the University of Oxford and the Wellcome Sanger Institute, in the statement.
Now that the DHA-PPQ drug is failing, countries need to adopt alternative treatments and speed up elimination of the resistant strains before they spread globally, his team warned.
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