PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Cambodia is one of 18 East Asian countries that have pledged to eradicate malaria from the Asia-Pacific region over the next 15 years.
The move comes amid rising concerns about an increase in the number of strains of malaria resistant to the drug Artemisinin. The drug is the most common treatment for the most dangerous species of malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, which can kill within 24 hours.
Regional and world leaders announced the ambitious target when they met at the East Asia Summit in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, last Thursday.
“A combined therapy is essential in order to cure this type of malaria,” said Steve Knowles, project director at the PNG Industry Malaria Initiative. Mr. Knowles stressed the importance of the Artemisinin-based combined therapy as the only treatment able to eradicate any parasite hidden in the liver.
“We are very concerned about the recent increase in drug-resistant strains of malaria,” he added. “But as long as there is a good combination of funding and expertise, the summit’s goal is perfectly achievable.”
Strains of drug-resistant malaria first emerged along the remote Thai-Cambodian border and have now spread as far west as Myanmar. They have also been found in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
Experts are increasingly worried about the possibility that resistance to the drug could soon spread to sub-Saharan Africa, where the Artemisinin Combination Therapy has proved very effective.
“Africa accounts for the majority of malarial infections and deaths,” said Dustin J. Harrison, a microbiologist at US Naval Medical Research Unit 2 in Phnom Penh. “Artemisinin resistance there would increase their burden of malaria infections. Containment, followed by elimination is the strategy here.”
The parasitic infection, which is spread by the Anopheles mosquito, is among the top twenty causes of death worldwide and is listed as the eighth most lethal virus.
The Asia-Pacific region has the second-highest rate of malarial infections after Africa. The region includes 22 malaria-endemic countries, with about 32 million cases of malaria infection every year and 47,000 associated deaths. Approximately 2 billion people in the region are at risk of contracting the disease at some point.
In order to achieve the goal of extinguishing malaria within 15 years, experts are evaluating different strategies, although no concrete plans have been confirmed yet.
“Ideas like mass drug administration have been proposed, but there are many people skeptical of this idea,” said Dr. Harrison. “Targeting the asymptomatic carriers is universally regarded as the keystone of any one plan.”
The regional project is likely to result in a heavy burden on public health budgets of the affected countries in the Greater Mekong Subregion.
However, as Dr. Harrison pointed out, governments can count on the support of international organizations, such as the Global Fund, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the United States’ President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI).