On India's doorstep, a mounting threat to malaria eradication

A young girl reads inside a mosquito net in West Bengal, India. Drug-resistant malaria parasites are within site of Myanmar’s border with the country. Photo by: Joydeep Mukherjee / UNDP / CC BY-NC-ND

In Myanmar’s mountainous northern provinces, drug-resistant malaria parasites are within sight of the country’s border with India. If they spread to the subcontinent and further into Africa — as has happened in the past — “millions of lives” could be at risk, along with global efforts to control and eradicate the deadly disease.

A study published Friday in Lancet Infectious Diseases, and coordinated by the Mahidol-Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Bangkok, looked at samples from 55 treatment centers in Myanmar — 940 malaria infection samples overall — and found that 39 percent of them carried a mutation enabling resistance to artemisinin, a front-line treatment against malaria and key weapon in the global control and eradication effort.

“Myanmar is considered the front line in the battle against artemisinin resistance as it forms a gateway for resistance to spread to the rest of the world,” said Dr. Charles Woodrow, senior author of the study at Oxford University, in a press release.

Drug-resistant malaria parasites originated in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and spread from there to India, “and then to the rest of the world where it killed millions of people,” said Mike Turner, head of infection and immunobiology at the Wellcome Trust, in the press release.

“The new research shows that history is repeating itself with parasites resistant to artemisinin drugs, the mainstay of modern malaria treatment, now widespread in Myanmar. We are facing the imminent threat of resistance spreading into India, with thousands of lives at risk,” Turner added.

A silver lining embedded in the alarming findings is the power of rapid diagnostics to paint a real-time picture of the threat posed by Myanmar’s resistant samples.

“We were able to gather patient samples rapidly across Myanmar, sometimes using discarded malaria blood diagnostic tests and then test these immediately,” said Dr. Mallika Imwong, research lead for laboratory analysis at Mahidol University’s faculty of tropical medicine in Bangkok.

The study’s authors call for a “more vigorous international effort” to address drug resistance in border regions and advocate for a “systematic review and revision of medicine dosing strategies” to prolong treatments’ life spans before resistance can take hold and spread.

What else can help the global fight against malaria drug resistance? Share your ideas by leaving a comment below.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.