By Gary Strieker
CNN) — Malaria’s a widespread problem, killing 800,000 people a year. It’s also a constantly changing problem. Scientists scrambling to find new malaria drugs fear that the most common current treatment is on its way out too.
Go to the pediatric ward of a hospital in many African countries and a large percentage of the children there are likely to have malaria. In western Kenya, it accounts for about one in three deaths of those under the age of five.
The standard treatment for the most deadly strain of malaria, plasmodium falciparum, used to be chloroquine, but over time the parasites adapted and became resistant, rendering the drug ineffective.
The next medication suffered the same fate, but in both cases, the resistance didn’t start in Africa, it started far away in rural Cambodia. Now it’s happening again, this time with artemisinin-based drugs, or ACTs – the gold standard in malaria treatment.
Dr Mark Fakuda, US Army researcher, explains, “We here as well as other researchers in southeast Asia have noted that not only are the parasites coming back at doses that should clear them but the amount of time it takes for those parasites to clear is creeping up over the last 6 to 12 years.”
It’s unclear why resistant strains take root here, but the government is cracking down on counterfeit drugs and educating the population to take ACT s correctly. Sub-standard drugs can lead to resistance because they fail to kill the strongest parasites, which learn how to adapt.
Counterfeit drugs are also a major problem in east Africa, raising additional concerns about resistance. There have been several raids in recent years in which thousands of kilograms of unlicensed medications have been seized. The CDC in Kenya says that stamping out counterfeit drugs, and getting the real ACTs to people, is paramount.
Meghna Desai of the Malaria Branch in the CDC, says, “What needs to be done in Africa currently is we really need to monitor for drug resistance but at the same time use of – and access to – good quality ACTs…I cannot stress the importance of that, and I don’t think all countries in Africa have succeeded in doing that.”