Myanmar and other regions close to the border of India have hit by a new malaria outbreak that seems to have developed resistance to the antimalarial drug artemisinin, which is now threatening to repeat history and cause crucial medicines to be rendered useless.
If this malaria with resistance to the commonly used antimalarial drug manages to reach India, it would pose a serious threat, particularly to the chances of global control and eradication of this mosquito-borne disease.
To add to that, if this resistance spreads from Asia to Africa, millions of lives could be at risk, researchers believe.
“Myanmar is considered the front line in the battle against artemisinin resistance as it forms a gateway for resistance to spread to the rest of the world,” said Charles Woodrow of the Mahidol-Oxford tropical medicine research unit, who led the study at Oxford University.
The research team collected 940 parasite samples at 55 different malaria treatment centres around Myanmar and its surrounding regions. They found that 40 percent of samples had developed mutations in a gene which could point out to the drug resistance.
The researchers also confirmed the presence of resistant parasites just 25 km away from the Indian border. While there has been a notable reduction in the number of people falling ill and dying of malaria, poor children around the sub-Saharan Africa are still at a risk.
From 1950s to 1970s, the world had witnessed drug resistant malaria which spread across Asia to Africa, and caused millions of deaths. The drug was then replaced by a combination treatment, which is now used today- but the researchers fear that history may repeat itself yet again.
“The pace at which artemisinin resistance is spreading or emerging is alarming,” said Philippe Guerin, director of the Worldwide Antimalarial Resistance Network.
Thanks to the advancements in genetics, researchers are now tracking certain artemisinin antimalarials which are in “the unusual position of having molecular markers for resistance before resistance has spread globally”.
“The more we understand about the current situation… the better prepared we are to adapt and implement strategies to overcome the spread of further drug resistance,” Guerin added.