The emergence on the Cambodian-Thai border of a malaria strain resistant to the most potent type of anti-malarial drug has prompted the World Health Organization to start a $22.5 million cross-border project to contain this form of malaria, which could undermine the global fight against the disease, WHO announced on Wednesday.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is providing the funding for the project to fight this new artemisinin-resistant strain, which will involve international organizations and Thai health institutes as well as the National Center of Parasitology, Entomology and Malaria Control and Institut Pasteur in Cambodia, according to a news release from the WHO’s Geneva headquarters.
WHO Cambodia Country Representative Michael O’Leary said the world health body was taking the situation “very seriously,” adding the project was a “very high priority” for WHO Cambodia.
“We have to get on top of it quickly,” O’Leary said. “If it starts to spread, it will be difficult to contain.”
If the artemisinin-resistant strain is not stopped in the Thai-Cambodian border region it could “rapidly spread to neighboring countries and threaten our efforts to control this deadly disease,” WHO Assistant Director-General Dr Hiroki Nakatani said in the news release.
“If local people, who walk miles every day to clear the forest, were infected with the type of malaria, it could set back recent successes to control the disease,” WHO said.
O’Leary said there was not a “good and complete answer” to why the new strain developed in the area, but he added that treatment with a single drug or treatment with drugs that are counterfeit or weak would increase the chances of a drug-resistant variety developing. WHO recommends treatments using a combination of malaria medicines.
WHO had been aware for some time there was “evolving problem” in western Cambodia and Thailand, O’Leary said.
It is not the first time drug-resistant malaria developed in the region.
Cholorquine-resistant strains evolved there, followed by parasites resistant to sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine and mefloquine, drugs used in malaria control several years ago, according to WHO.
A medical study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in December found the artemisinin-resistant strain among two of 60 patients in Battambang province.
O’Leary said the funding granted for two years by the Gates Foundation was just initial funds to begin containing the strain, but that efforts to fully contain and eliminate it will take years and would require additional funding.
“We will be dealing with this for some time yet,” he added.