25 February 2009The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) said today that the emergence of a drug-resistant form of malaria in South-East Asia could seriously undermine global successes in controlling the disease. According to a news release issued by the Geneva-based agency, there is new evidence of parasites resistant to artemisinin – the main drug used to treat the disease – along the border between Cambodia and Thailand where workers walk for miles every day to clear forests.“If we do not put a stop to the drug-resistant malaria situation that has been documented in the Thai-Cambodia border, it could spread rapidly to neighbouring countries and threaten our efforts to control this deadly disease,” said Dr. Hiroki Nakatani, WHO Assistant Director-General. WHO notes that huge strides have been made in the last ten years to reduce the burden of malaria, which is caused by parasites that are transmitted to people through the bites of infected mosquitoes and is one of the world’s major killer diseases.Artemisinin-based combination therapies, or ACTs, have proven to be a major breakthrough in treating malaria, succeeding in more than 90 per cent of cases, the agency stated. However, malaria drug resistance now emerging along the Thai-Cambodia border threatens these gains. Supported by a $22.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, WHO will aim to contain artemisinin resistant malaria parasites before they spread, working in collaboration with key partners. “We know that malaria can be treated and prevented,” said Dr. Regina Rabinovich, Director of Infectious Diseases Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, “and if we lose the key treatment available at this time, it’s like living in a house with a half a roof.”Malaria poses a risk to half of the world’s population and more than one million people die of the disease each year. Obstacles to controlling the disease include drug resistance in the parasite that causes the disease, as well as resistance of the vector mosquito to insecticides, environmental factors and counterfeit medicines. According to WHO, there are no effective alternatives to artemisinins for the treatment of malaria either on the market or nearing the end of the drug development process.