A powerful weapon against malaria could soon be produced in Cambodia and distributed locally.
The French NGO Nomad Recherche et Soutien International recently concluded that the moist, light soil of Mondolkiri province is ideal for artemisia annua—a flowering plant distilled to produce artemisinin, the most effective known anti-malarial.
Studies have shown that when used in combination with other drugs, artemisinin is 95-percent effective in curing the illness. The NGO’s staff found that a one-hectare crop of artemisia grown in Mondolkiri could produce at least 15,000 treatments, rivaling the production rate of the two main producers, China and Vietnam.
Nomad Recherche General Coordinator Barbara Donaldson said that since their four-year study, the NGO has begun talks with the humanitarian arm of private French pharmaceutical company Pierre Fabre to manufacture and distribute the drug within Cambodia, and explore other regions in the country to cultivate the crops. She said Nomad Recherche would support manufacture and production of the drug only for national distribution.
“Exporting anything wouldn’t be a good idea, but it would be great to reduce the gap between supply and demand in Cambodia,” Donaldson said. “There are probably other places in Cambodia it would grow, possibly in Bokor [in Kampot province], or another cooler area.” She said anti-malarials made with Mondolkiri artemisinin would likely be distributed within the province first.
Artemisia annua, commonly known as wormwood or sagewort, has been used for centuries as medicinal tea and a poultice for various ailments, including cough, fever and hemorrhoids. Distilled artemisinin is most effective against malaria when used in combination with another drug, such as lumefantrine or mefloquine, which kill whatever parasites have dodged the dose of artemisinin.
Experts consider artemisinin combination therapy the most powerful treatment against malaria. Despite a WHO warning that its misuse could create an incurable malaria strain, WHO officials say China and Vietnam have been unable to keep up with sharply increasing demand for the drug.
In a news conference in Washington earlier this month, Dr Arata Kochi, the new WHO malaria program chief, warned that misuse of artemisinin could reduce its potency and create a resistant malaria strain. He demanded that pharmaceutical firms stop making and selling pure artemisinin tablets, which he said could lead to resistant malaria, and to use it only in a cocktail of other anti-malarial drugs. Donaldson said Nomad Recherche would act only within WHO guidelines.
Dr Chang Mosheng, a WHO mosquito-borne disease specialist based in Cambodia, said the artemisia crops could potentially benefit the nation’s health as well as its economy. “Artemisinin is a must,” he said.