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Drug-Resistant Malaria May Lead to the Next Major Pandemic

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Worldwide death rates for malaria have dropped by 47 percent from 2000 to 2014 but the disease still claimed more than 580,000 people in 2013. Major strides have been achieved in curbing malaria but with the growing number of cases involving drug resistance, a new problem is starting to show its face.

When a patient tests positive for malaria, they are given a three-day course of medication to treat the disease. When a patient doesn't get better after that round of treatment, still showing malaria parasites in their blood, the case is almost always a sign of drug resistance, according experts. Should drug-resistant malaria make its way to Africa and India, it could be the next big health emergency the world will have to deal with.

Myanmar borders China and India, where 40 percent of the global population reside in. It is therefore considered to be a strategic location for halting the spread of drug-resistant malaria to Africa and India. Unfortunately, cases of drug resistance are growing in Myanmar, alarming experts.

"We need to act fast to avoid a big catastrophe. The consequences could be disastrous," said Pascal Ringwald from the WHO Global Malaria Program.

Most of the success in treating malaria was from combination therapies, or ACTs, utilizing artemisinin, a compound derived from a Chinese herb. The problem is, even when experts are aware of the growing number of drug-resistant malaria cases, no replacement has been developed yet for artemisinin.

As early as 2008, drug-resistant malaria has been identified in Myanmar. Before that, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia already tested positive, although it is still not clear how malaria parasites have become resistant to artemisinin.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine notes though that fake and substandard drugs and poor treatment practices are some of the suspected reasons for drug-resistant malaria.

"The drug development pipeline is better than it has ever been, but we still don't have anything as good as the artemisinins which will be readily available in the next three to five years. There's no quick fix," said Prof. Nicholas White, the study's senior author.

A radical suggestion White and colleagues stated is to have everyone, sick or not, take anti-malaria medication to eliminate the parasite in all possible carriers.

According to another study published in the journal Malaria last month, an additional 116,000 in deaths every year is likely if artemisinin resistance is not addressed. At the same time, medical costs would exceed $32 million every year, while productivity losses would amount to $385 million.

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