Drug-Resistant Malaria Outbreak Is a 'Huge Threat'

A government health worker takes a blood sample from a woman to be tested for malaria in Ta Gay Laung village hall in Hpa-An district in Kayin state, Myanmar, November 28, 2014. Astrid Zweynert/Reuters

A strain of drug-resistant malaria that was discovered last summer along the Thailand-Cambodia border has been been spreading throughout Southeast Asia, to Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar.

A study published Thursday in the Lancet Infectious Diseases Journal says this strain of malaria may soon trickle into India--a possibility that officials have deemed an "enormous threat" to public health. "We are facing the imminent threat of resistance spreading into India, with thousands of lives at risk," said the head of infection and immunobiology at the medical charity Wellcome Trust, Mike Turner, in an interview with BBC.

The study analyzed more than 900 blood samples from malaria patients at over 55 different sites in Myanmar. The results showed that the drug-resistant bug was widespread, and dangerously close to the Indian border in the country's Sagaing region. "Our study shows that artemisinin resistance extends over more of southeast Asia than had previously been known, and is now present close to the border with India," wrote the researchers in the study abstract. "This finding expands the area in which containment and elimination are needed to prevent the possibility of global spread of artemisinin resistance."

The drug artemisinin is typically one of several administered to malaria patients in a combative combination therapy program, and comes at the recommendation of the World Health Organization (WHO). The treatment has proved beneficial in the some 200 million malaria cases reported per year since it was first instituted in '90s. Health care providers worry that the new strain poses a huge problem in the battle against malaria, as there are few other drugs or therapy programs currently being utilized to treat the parasitic disease.

In the past, malaria has shown to be resistant to other treatments as well. Up until the late 1950s, the antimalarial drug chloroquine had been effectively helping to reduce malaria rates in Southeast Asia. But in 1957, again near the Thailand-Cambodia border, a strain of chloroquine-resistant malaria was detected. That strain spread worldwide, reaching Africa in the early 1970s.

In 2005, another drug-resistant strain of malaria was found in the very same region.

Some researchers believe that the high incidence of drug-resistant malaria in Southeast Asia, as opposed to other hotbeds such as Africa, is due to people there having less natural immunity to malaria. A CBS News report suggests that the immunity to artemisinin may be caused by overuse of the drug in Southeast Asia.

Health care providers and physicians are calling for an international coalition to tackle the possible public health disaster that could ensue with the spread of the artemisinin-resistant parasite. "The pace at which the geographical extent of artemisinin resistance is spreading is faster than the rate at which control and elimination measures are being developed and instituted, or new drugs being introduced. A vigorous international effort to contain this enormous threat is needed," write the researchers in the study.

As Newsweek previously reported, pharmaceutical manufacturing giant Novartis is currently developing a new antimalarial drug, but it's still in preliminary trial stages.