Malaria superbugs, a major threat

A spectre is haunting Asia in the form of drug-resistant malaria superbugs which may pose a serious threat to public health, not only in the continent but all over the world. Parasites which are carried by mosquitoes and cause the disease are very active in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and parts of Myanmar and may soon spread to India and elsewhere. In the countries where the superbugs have been detected, there is an upsurge in the incidence of malaria and deaths caused by it. Since the parasites have acquired resistance to drugs which are used to treat malaria, there is little defence against them. Scientists and experts have warned that the consequences could be grave if drug resistance is not tackled from a global public health emergency perspective. Malaria is a major killer and it afflicts about two million people every year. Over 4 lakh people die of it every year. The medical journal Lancet has warned that the last wave of drug-resistant malaria parasites had killed millions and so, vigil has to be stepped up in the affected areas.

Chloroquine was once used to treat malaria. But another drug came to be used later when a chloroquine-resistant strain developed. The parasite developed resistance to this drug also and in the last many years, artemisinin, discovered from traditional Chinese medi­cine for which the scientist who developed it got the Nobel Prize, has been used effectively to treat the disease. But the bacteria causing the disease has mutated into a strain which is resistant to artemisinin, too. This has caused alarm among doctors and scientists. The World Health Organisation had noted that the use of artemisinin, supported by other drugs, had nearly halved the deaths from malaria over the past 15 years. But the progress in checking it may be reversed now. Since artemisinin is crucial to the fight against malaria and there is at present no replacement for it, resistance to it will leave the world defenceless against malaria. Newer drugs were being developed when the parasite acquired resistance to drugs in the past. Though research is taking place all over the world, there is still no sign of the discovery of a drug which can take the
place of artemisinin.

Attempts to eradicate the drug-resistant strain have been ineffective. Since resistance was developed in the natural course of evolution of the bacteria it is still more difficult to counter it. Separate cases of malaria drug resistance have also been reported from some parts of Africa. An early medical breakthrough is needed to ward off an approaching health disaster.

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