A few years ago I heard a Navy physician speak about a particularly difficult drug resistant strain of malaria in Cambodia. He was a specialist in malaria research. He speculated that the strain had developed during the U.S. war with Vietnam.
Malaria was rampant in the region. People affected by it took medication haphazardly to relieve the symptoms. But if the full course of treatment is not followed, the parasite can develop resistance.
He theorized this had contributed to a more virulent parasite. It’s resistant to artemisinin, currently the most effective drug to treat malaria. His concern was that the parasite could spread.
The Parasite Spreads
Now it appears this may be happening according to a study in the medical journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases. The parasite may be moving to a wider area, or reporting and documentation may be locating more cases.
In either case, the study points to the need for persistence to contain and prevent this parasite from spreading. The risk is that this strain could reach beyond Cambodia to India, Africa and other parts of southeast Asia.
If this were to happen it could reverse the enormous gains made against this disease in the past decade. This has happened before and the result was an increase in deaths and loss of productivity across whole regions of the world.
The study rings an alarm bell.
Continuing the Fight
We must continue the fight against malaria. The full range of technologies must be used:
- continuing research to replace artimisinin where resistance occurs;
- bednets to prevent night exposure;
- effective education to assure people use medications properly;
- getting counterfit drugs off the market;
- residual indoor spraying for interior protection;
- research to potentially alter the mosquito host and the parasite;
- enviromental cleanup and water management to control mosquito breeding areas;
- repairing broken, inadequate health systems.
Most importantly, donors, researchers, and health care providers must remain as persistent as the parasite.
Malaria is not a fad from which we retreat when it’s no longer the cause of the day. If the disease rebounds, the death toll will be worse than before, and that would be tragic.
Sustained, ongoing, dogged determination to contain this disease is the best approach. It’s not the easiest approach, but we know the results of doing less: needless suffering, lost productivity, countless deaths.