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Scientists announce ‘groundbreaking research’ in fight against malaria in Burma

A team of scientists coordinated by the World Health Organization (WHO) has announced groundbreaking research into the spread of malaria in Burma.

A health worker at the Thai-Burmese border tests a patient for malaria. (Photo: Will George / IRIN)Funded by the University of Maryland in the USA, the researchers published an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal on December 17 saying they have identified several promising genetic markers that could be used to develop tests to identify and track the spread of artemisinin-resistant malaria.

Supported by US federal funds, the research team said that, in addition to tracking the spread of the disease, they will train local investigators in cutting-edge molecular and pharmacology lab practices to help Burma cope with the problem.

“Myanmar has about three percent of the Southeast Asian population, but about 20 percent of the region's malaria,” said principal investigator Christopher Plowe.

“Artemisinins are our newest group of effective anti-malaria drugs, having replaced older drugs that are no longer useful because the malaria parasite developed resistance to them,” he said. “Artemisinin is our first line of defense against this parasite, representing a huge global investment in the fight against the disease. This emerging form of artemisinin-resistant malaria, while it's still relatively rare, is already causing treatment failures where it first appeared, in Cambodia. The concern is that we'll lose this drug, at an immense cost of human life.”

Artemisinin is a Chinese herb which has, in recent years, been hailed a wonder drug in the fight against falciparum malaria and latterly against vivax malaria. It is widely used in an ever-changing mix of “cocktails” with other drugs to prevent immunity, and has been responsible for reducing the rate of falciparum malaria at the Thai-Burmese border for example, by up to 90 percent.

The WHO explicitly discourages the use of artemisinin as a monotherapy. It was reported earlier this year that the parasite, which is carried in mosquitoes, had developed resistance to artemisinin in Cambodia, Thailand and Burma.

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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 18 December 2012 13:21 )  

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