An anti-malaria drug that is showing signs of weakness in Southeast Asia continues to cure young people infected with the disease, scientists in Mali have found.
Use of the Chinese drug artemisinin has been strongly opposed by the World Health Organisation as there have been signs that certain strains of malaria are developing resistance to it.
In April 2012, it was reported the deadly malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum had emerged and it is rapidly growing stronger along the border between Thailand and Burma.
But researchers at the University of Bamako found that artemisinin "rapidly purged" the parasite from infected children treated in late 2010 and 2011, in a village in Mali that has "high-intensity" seasonal malaria transmission.
The median time to 'parasite clearance' was 32 hours, compared to 84 hours in tests conducted in areas of Cambodia, where falciparum parasites are also developing resistance.
Senior author of the study, Abdoulaye A Djimde, said: "Our study indicates that in this region of Africa, there does not appear to be any artemisinin resistance."
Djimde is concerned, however, about the lack of intensive surveillance underway in Africa.
Co-author of the study and malaria expert at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Christopher Plowe, agreed: "Historically, parasite resistance to malaria medicines has started in Southeast Asia and then eventually moved into Africa."
"We have to be very proactive if we want to avoid a public health disaster in Africa, which is where most of the world's malaria deaths occur and where artemisinin resistance would have its gravest effect," said Plowe.
In an editorial accompanying the Mali study, Caroline L Ng and David A Fidock of the Columbia University Medical Center said that one reason there is such alarm over the prospect of artemisinin resistance is that "we are still several years away from any other drugs being licensed and available to replace artemisinin, should it fail."
Ng and Fidock see an urgent need for increased investments in research focused on discovering new drugs.
Image: In April 2012, it was reported the deadly malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum had emerged and is rapidly growing stronger along the border between Thailand and Burma.