Malaria kills about 584,000 people per year, figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) show, but deaths due to the mosquito-borne disease could have been much higher without available treatment.
Artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT) is currently considered as the best available treatment for the potentially deadly disease and the world owes this to Tu Youyou, who was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize for Medicine this week for the discovery of the malaria drug.
Tu's work, which stemmed from a secret military project initiated by the Communist Party of China (CPC), has made the 84-year old the first Chinese woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize.
The discovery of artemisinin is notable in many aspects. Tu was an undergraduate in Pharmacology when she answered the call of Chinese leader Mao Zedong to find a cure for malaria during the Vietnam War.
She headed the covert operation dubbed Project 523 that aimed to find new drugs for malaria, which at the time claimed more lives than the war.
Tu and her team pored over around 2,000 traditional Chinese medicine texts and prepared 380 herbal remedies that they hoped would cure the disease with the findings documented in a notebook called "A Collection of Single Practical Prescriptions for Anti-Malaria."
Tu's team found information in a 1,600 year old text that people in 400 AD used sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua L.), which is known in Chinese as qinghaosu, to treat malaria with some success. They used this information to create the antimalarial drug.
While the traditional Chinese medicine undeniably helped pave way for the creation of the artemisinin drug that is now used to fight malaria-carrying parasites, Tu's team used modern scientific methods to identify an effective drug using statistical analysis. Scientific methods were also employed to extract the active ingredient and evaluate the efficacy in controlled experiments.
The Nobel committee has in fact said that the award was not honoring Chinese medicine, but for how Tu employed scientific procedures to extract the active ingredient and produce the chemical drug that now saves millions of lives.
The award has given pride to Chinese medical experts who believe in traditional medicine.
"In the future, how can people say that Chinese medicine isn't scientific?" said Hu Xin, who learned about Chinese herbal medicine from his father and pursued advanced degrees in a university. "You can't deny that it's based on Chinese medical texts and clinical experience."