A new form of malaria outbreak has spread rapidly across Southeast Asian countries, alarming doctors and scientists alike. Referred to as “super malaria”, medical professionals are warning that this particular form of malaria parasite is immune to the typical anti-malaria drug and has become a global threat.
An estimated 212 million people are infected with malaria each year. With children being particularly vulnerable to the disease, super malaria is caused by parasites transmitted to people through the bites of infected female mosquitoes.
The strain was initially detected in Cambodia in 2007, then rapidly spread to Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and eventually reaching Southern Vietnam.
Analysts at the Mahidol-Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Bangkok believes that malaria has a real potential of eventually becoming untreatable.
Head of the malaria unit, Prof Arjen Dondorp has stated, “We think it is a serious threat. It is alarming that this strain is spreading so quickly through the whole region and we fear it can spread further [and eventually] jump to Africa.”
Though the number of cases in Southeast Asia are still limited, specialists are concerned about the emergence of super malaria. Back in the 1950s and 60s, two surges of malaria outbreaks, which were also resistant to standard treatments, appeared in Southeast Asia and swept across India and Africa, causing millions of deaths.
Typically, the first choice treatment for malaria is artemisinin in combination with piperaquine. However, as artemisinin has become less effective, the parasite has now evolved to resist piperaquine as well.
Prof Dondorp has said that the treatment fails a third of the time in Vietnam, while in some regions of Cambodia the failure rate is closer to 60%. Resistance to the drugs would be catastrophic in Africa, where 92% of all malaria cases happen.
There is a push to eliminate malaria in the Greater Mekong sub-region before it is too late, Prof Dondorp added, “It’s a race against the clock – we have to eliminate it before malaria becomes untreatable again and we see a lot of deaths.”
Mr Michael Chew, from the Wellcome Trust medical research charity has stated, “The spread of this malaria ‘superbug’ strain, resistant to the most effective drug we have, is alarming and has major implications for public health globally. Around 700,000 people a year die from drug-resistant infections, including malaria.”
Mr Chew added that if nothing is done, the death toll could be in the millions annually by 2050.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there were over 210 million cases of malaria in 2015, resulting in 429,000 deaths.