Drug-resistant malaria is spreading, but experts clash over its global risk
In what scientists call a “sinister development,” a malaria parasite resistant to a widely used drug combination is on the march in Southeast Asia. It has rapidly made its way in an arc from western Cambodia, through northeastern Thailand, to southern Laos; now it has landed in southern Vietnam, where it is causing alarming rates of treatment failure.
What’s more, the team from the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Bangkok writes in the October issue of The Lancet Infectious Diseases, this strain, resistant to an artemisinin combination therapy (ACT), is outcompeting others and becoming dominant in parts of what is known as the Greater Mekong subregion. That’s not only bad news for the region, the researchers say; should this bug spread to Africa, where more than 90% of malaria deaths occur, the consequences could be disastrous. The outspoken head of the Mahidol group, Nicholas White, has urged the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, a designation reserved for the most serious outbreaks that pose a global threat.
But the letter—which triggered media stories warning of a “superbug” on the loose—and White’s warning irked many in the famously contentious malaria research community, where personal animosities and longstanding grudges run deep. WHO experts dismissed the report as “nothing new” and decried what they see as overblown claims from a group that they say has cried wolf before. “Parasite resistance to antimalarial medicines is a serious problem. But we must not create unnecessary alarm,” the head of WHO’s Global Malaria Programme, Pedro Alonso, said in a 29 September statement.
Photo courtesy of CDC Global.
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