Lancet study warns virulent malaria strain may spread rapidly in Southeast Asia

SINGAPORE--A newly published study warns that Southeast Asia could soon see a spread of virulent new strains of drug-resistant malaria that already have spread much faster than experts had expected. The alarm was sounded after a strain resistant to the common treatment for the disease, artemisinin, was found to have reached Myanmar, not far from the border with India and its population of nearly 1.3 billion.

The Lancet researchers said they collected DNA evidence at 55 malaria treatment centers around Myanmar, including those near Thailand and Bangladesh, over a 9-month period ending last September. They reported 26 different mutations of the virus found in much of the country. The suspect is the falciparum malaria, already found in China and Bangladesh.

By the time the British journal published the findings recently, experts already had gathered at a regional conference in Malaysia to urge nations in the region to take immediate steps to curb the potential spread. One expert called the situation not only a national emergency in Myanmar, but a regional one and a global one as well.

According to various experts at the conference, artemisinin has absolutely no effect on the new strain. The World Health Organization said those in the greatest danger are in Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan and Papua New Guinea. India probably would be the next country to see its spread, the Lancet report said, adding that the strain already had been discovered in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

India health authorities had warned of the possibility of such a virulent strain earlier when it reported on its previous success in reducing the number of cases and deaths from malaria. Resistant strains could develop and wipe out those gains, it cautioned.

One malaria expert said in a recent interview that he thought the malaria threat "should be fought as a war," with real-time research and "actionable intelligence."

- read The Lancet story
- here's the Nikkei piece
- and here's the Wall Street Journal story