South East Asia has seen an increase in malaria carrying parasites that have developed a resistance to the primary drugs used to combat the disease. The parasites have made their way from Cambodia to Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Typically the remedy for malaria is a combo of artemisinin and piperaquine. This combination was brought to Cambodia over a decade ago, though parasite mutations resulting in drug resistance were evident in the western region of the country by 2013. DNA taken from patients’ blood samples across South East Asia showed that the resistance has extended to other countries. In some areas, 80 percent of these parasites have developed drug resistance.
“This strain has spread and has become worse,” says Dr Roberto Amato from the Wellcome Sanger Institute.
Although half of the patients treated with regular therapy weren’t cured, alternative medicines can be used.
“With the spread and intensification of resistance, our findings highlight the urgent need to adopt alternative first-line treatments”, said Professor Tran Tinh Hien of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit.
Concern for Africa
Headway has been made in the fight against malaria, but the evolution of drug resistance challenges those developments. Another concern is the possibility of the resistance reaching Africa, where over 90 percent of recorded malaria cases are found.
“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,” stated Professor Olivo Miotto from the Wellcome Sanger Institute and University of Oxford.
Although this is all a frightening thought, the situation might not be as drastic as it sounds. Malaria cases in Cambodia have dropped by nearly 86 percent from 2008 to 2018.
“These parasites are scary beasts, there’s no doubt,” says Colin Sutherland, a Professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “However, I wonder if these parasites are not very fit because the population as a whole is crashing.”