Drug-resistant malaria on the rise

Recent research is finding that resistance to the main form of malaria treatment is increasing.

Researchers have found drug-resistant strains of the parasites responsible for malaria over 500 miles away from sites of previous outbreaks of drug-resistant malaria. This would seem to indicate that the drug-resistant version of the disease is on the rise and spreading.

These new findings are based around research from 2008 that first attempted to study the most deadly forms of malaria. This research found that these forms of malaria were becoming increasingly resistant to a drug derived from Artemisia annua, a Chinese plant also known as sweet wormwood.

Sweet wormwood is the basis for the most effective treatments for malaria. This increased resistance means that any hopes of eradicating the disease may have to take a back seat until an equally cheap, effective treatment can be found.

A close up view of what really could be on your skin. Graphic by Laura Bramble.

The new data indicates that Plasmodium falciparum parasites, the ones responsible for malaria, and a particularly drug-resistant strain have been found more than 500 miles away from the border between Thailand and Burma, and the strain is growing increasingly resistant.

The research was conducted by the Shoklo Malaria Research Unit; they examined how long it took for the wormwood-based drug to effectively treat a patient. They did this over the course of 9 years, starting in 2001. What they found was that it was taking longer for the drug to affect patients and that the number of those with malaria resistant to the drug jumped by 20%.

This recent development would mean the end of the idea of entirely eliminating the mosquito-born disease, which had been the hope of a number of international aid organizations. The worst part about this news is they don’t have a drug to replace the current one if resistance were to ever reach 100%.

Some scientists are comparing this to what happened in the 1970s when the drug of choice for treating malaria, chloroquine, became ineffective. The new, resistant strain hit Africa and the numbers of cases increased dramatically along with the number of malaria-related deaths. The majority of those who died as a result of the new resistant strain were children.

Malaria is a serious illness. The World Health Organization found in 2010 that Malaria was responsible for an estimated 655,000 deaths worldwide. The majority of those who died as a result of the disease were young children and pregnant women. This is a disease that was extremely close to being eliminated, though it appears that it is likely to be on the rise once more as it becomes increasingly drug-resistant. Hopefully scientists and researchers will learn something from this and the next drug down the line will be able to finish what this one started.