Does Drug-Resistant ‘Super Malaria’ Pose a Global Threat?

Recent headlines warn of an emerging “super malaria” outbreak in Southeast Asia, but do these cases threaten the rest of the world?

BBC report from September of 2017 raises the red flag:

This dangerous form of the malaria parasite cannot be killed with the main anti-malaria drugs.

It emerged in Cambodia but has since spread through parts of Thailand, Laos and has arrived in southern Vietnam.

The team at the Mahidol-Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Bangkok said there was a real danger of malaria becoming untreatable.

An article published in the “Lancet” seems to have sparked widespread reports on the issue, warning of growing resistance to the drugs artemisinin and piperaquine – a mainstay for malaria treatment.

While multiple sources have released alarming reports, it’s important to put the outbreak in perspective.

What is Malaria?

Malaria is a life-threatening disease usually transmitted by mosquitoes with a form of Plasmodium parasite. When the mosquito lands bites a person and begins to draw blood, the parasite can infiltrate its soon-to-be-human host.

Seven to 18 days after infection, a person will begin to show symptoms, including fever, headaches, vomiting, muscle pain and diarrhea. If left untreated, malaria can be fatal. Depending on what type of Plasmodium parasite is causing symptoms, there are a range of options for treatment.

A full recovery from malaria is certainly possible, but life-threatening complications can arise. The very young, elderly and infirm are at high risk of more severe malaria symptoms.

What is “super malaria”?

In general, the press is using the term “super malaria” to describe strains of malaria-causing parasites that are resistant to existing treatments. Other ”superbugs,” like gonorrhea, have also made recent headlines, and drug resistance — especially involving antibiotics — remains a major concern for many diseases that were once easily treatable.

What’s happening in Vietnam?

Artemisinin-based treatment resistance is a growing problem in the country. However, as the World Health Organization points out, there is no technical definition for “super malaria.” What’s more, this issue is not as new as the latest media reports may have suggested.

In an open statement on its website, the World Health Organization cautions against sensationalist headlines and offers several facts, including:

  • Several studies have explored multi-drug resistant malaria in the South East Asian region — more exactly, the Greater Mekong Subregion, or GMS.
  • Vietnam recently changed its frontline treatment against malaria, adopting a more effective alternative.
  • Malaria research is an ongoing international initiative, providing new treatment options.
  • Malaria cases are declining in the region, meaning that drug resistance may slow due to a reduced need for treatment.

And in response to headlines that suggest “super malaria” is quickly becoming untreatable, the World Health Organization categorically states:

Some news reports claim that the drug-resistant strain of malaria parasites detected in Viet Nam cannot be killed by current antimalarial medicines. Is this accurate?

No. The newly adopted first-line treatment in Viet Nam, artesunate-mefloquine, remains highly efficacious against this strain as does the new ACT artesunate-pyronaridine. Up until now, we have had effective treatment options for all malaria parasites that have been detected globally.

The WHO goes on to explain that while drug-resistant malaria could spread from Vietnam and the surrounding region to Africa and India, it’s more likely that drug resistance would emerge independently, as has happened with certain antibiotics. That said, travel screenings may be adopted to ensure resistance doesn’t spread if the issue gains traction.

Even so, the WHO doesn’t discount the seriousness of increasing drug resistance, and the organization has updated their guidelines in recent years to specifically tackle resistance. Those changes include switching from artemisinin-based treatments and reducing the use of certain oral treatments that have been shown to drive resistance, to name just a few.

It is absolutely worth pointing out, as Scientific American and other publications already have, that this is not the time for Congress to withdraw money from anti-malaria initiatives.

Sensationalist headlines do not help that cause though, as they only inspire fear and panic. For real change, international leaders must continue to fund and deliver malaria intervention and treatment options with urgency.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

36 comments

Lorraine Andersen
Lorraine Andersen11 months ago

I guess we should not be surprised that things are becoming resistant to our medications. Soon we will be without medication because nothing will work, we will be on our own when we become sick!.

SEND
Ruth S
Ruth S11 months ago

Oh, great! Another problem for us. Thanks.

SEND
Mike R
Mike R11 months ago

Very scary especially if it spreads further. Thanks

SEND
Winn Adams
Winn A11 months ago

:-(

SEND
Loredana V
Loredana V11 months ago

We destroyed the Planet and then complain...weird.

SEND
Muff-Anne Y

Not good.

SEND
Kay B
Kay B11 months ago

Scary! Of course the fox will downplay the concerns for the henhouse.

SEND
Anne M
Anne Moran11 months ago

I sure hope not; funny how a little bug, can kill a human being, simply by stinging them..

SEND
Ant m
Ant m11 months ago

tks ...

SEND
Camilla Vaga
Camilla Vaga11 months ago

horrible

SEND