Drug-resistant malaria threatens to spread to India causing global health crisis

Mutant genes that are resistant to a vital anti-malaria drug were found in the blood of people close to the India border

Ben Tufft
Sunday 01 March 2015 13:33 GMT
Malaria kills about 600,000 people each year, most of them young children under the age of five living in sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia
Malaria kills about 600,000 people each year, most of them young children under the age of five living in sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia (Getty Images)

Drug-resistant malaria is spreading across Burma and has reached the Indian border, threatening to render conventional medicines redundant in the global fight against the disease.

Doctors are concerned that if not addressed the strain of malaria could spread throughout India and reach Africa, which accounts for 90 per cent of the world’s malaria cases, causing a major public health crisis.

In a study published in the Lancet journal, researchers discovered that resistance to artemisinin, a vital drug used to combat malaria, has extended from southern Burma after first being recorded in Cambodia.

“Myanmar is considered the frontline in the battle against artemisinin resistance as it forms a gateway for resistance to spread to the rest of the world,” says Dr Charles Woodrow from the Mahidol-Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit and lead author of the study.

Now drug-resistant K13 mutant genes from malarial parasites have been found in the blood of people with malaria in the north and east of Burma.

The mutant genes were also discovered in nearly half of the samples taken from people just 25km from the Indian border.

“The identification of the K13 markers of resistance has transformed our ability to monitor the spread and emergence of artemisinin resistance,” said Professor Philippe Guerin, director of the Worldwide Antimalarial Resistance Network and coauthor of the article.

“However, this study highlights that the pace at which artemisinin resistance is spreading or emerging is alarming. We need a more vigorous international effort to address this issue in border regions,” he added.

Professor Mike Turner, head of infection and immunobiology at the Wellcome Trust, said: “Drug-resistant malaria parasites in the 1960s originated in South-east Asia and from there spread through Myanmar to India, and then to the rest of the world where it killed millions of people.

"The new research shows that history is repeating itself with parasites resistant to artemisinin drugs, the mainstay of modern malaria treatment, now widespread in Myanmar. We are facing the imminent threat of resistance spreading into India, with thousands of lives at risk.”

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