Gates Foundation, WHO Partnering to Fight Drug-Resistant Malaria Strain

Gates Foundation, WHO Partnering to Fight Drug-Resistant Malaria Strain

The World Health Organization and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are working to contain a dangerous strain of malaria that, if allowed to spread beyond Cambodia, could threaten millions of people, Bloomberg.com reports.

The Gates Foundation has awarded $23 million to support the Bangkok-based Wellcome Trust-Mahidol University Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Programme, which is facing a flood of counterfeit anti-malarial medications from China that are helping to breed a superbug which resists even the most effective anti-malarial medicine, artemisinin.

According to Bloomberg, fake pharmaceuticals abound in Pailin, Cambodia, where vendors hawk cheap pills without a prescription at drugstores. While pills devoid of active ingredients fail to ease the symptoms of sick individuals, those containing small amounts wipe out only the weakest parasites, enabling the hardiest to survive and spread resistance to full-strength anti-malarials. Moreover, the artemisinin-derivatives only remain in the system for a short time and must be given with one of several less-powerful, longer-lasting partner medicines that cause adverse effects, including nausea, vomiting, and nightmares.

WHO hopes to eliminate malaria from western Cambodia through the Gates-backed program, which will screen and treat roughly 25,000 people in the Pailin region next month. It may expand tests and treatments to hundreds of thousands later this year. "If you want to get rid of these resistant parasites, you in fact have to eradicate malaria from western Cambodia," said Arjen Dondorp, a Thailand-based researcher. "In the effort to reduce it, the last man standing will be the most resistant parasite."

While Cambodia accounts for only about 0.4 percent of the world's malaria cases, health officials fear a "doom scenario" could occur in which migrant workers carry the bug to Thailand, Myanmar, and India. From there, the resistant strain would spread to Africa, which already has 90 percent of the world's malaria cases. Although artemisinin-derived drugs are still clearing the parasites that cause malaria, they're doing so more slowly — a sign that resistance to artemisinin-based treatments is building.

"We don't have many alternatives" to artemisinin, said Charles Delacollette, the head of WHO's Mekong Malaria Programme. "That drug should be protected."

Simeon Bennett. "Malaria Disaster Looms From Bug's Resistance, China Faces." Bloomberg.com 05/20/2009.