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New Malaria Drug Launched in Latin America, Southeast Asia

A new drug that offers hope to millions of malaria sufferers is being launched in Latin America and Southeast Asia. The medicine, developed by a Brazilian pharmaceutical company and a non-profit drug development organization, is a new fixed-dose combination of two existing malaria medications. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

Artemisinin-based combination treatments are considered to be the best treatments for uncomplicated malaria. They are a key element of the global malaria control strategy.

The new drug, a combination of Artesunate and Mefloquine is one of four combination treatments recommended by the World Health Organization as first-line anti-malarial treatment since 2001.

Bernard Pecoul, Executive Director of the organization The Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative, tells VOA this new treatment combines two drugs in the same tablet, making it simpler to use.

"In order to treat properly malaria today in those regions, the recommendation is to combine Artesunate plus Mefloquine. So, we have developed tablets that are combining the two treatments in the same tablet with a very simple regimen because at the end of the day you have to take one tablet a day for three days for some ages or two tablets a day for three days for other ages," he said.

Dr. Pecoul says the tablets are safe, rapid and reliably effective for both adults and children. He says a full treatment only costs $2.50 and will be made available throughout Latin America and Southeast Asia over 2008 and 2009.

Malaria affects more than one billion people worldwide and kills more than one million. Most are children under five in sub-Saharan Africa.

The World Health Organization reports there are about three million new cases of malaria in Southeast Asia every year and another one million new cases in Latin America annually.

Dr. Pecoul says his organization is supporting a study in Tanzania to see if the new tablet could be successfully used in Africa, a continent with 300 million cases of uncomplicated malaria.

"Today in Africa there is two first-line treatments with Artesunate and other drugs being recommended by WHO and national programs. But, Artesunate and Mefloquine could play a role in places where there is multi-drug resistance, where there is resistance to several drugs and where the first-line treatment or efficacy could be limited. So, Artesunate-Mefloquine has a role to play in this kind of region and I have particularly in mind the eastern part of Africa where the level or resistance is quite high," he said.

Dr. Pecoul explains resistance to malaria drugs grows when patients do not complete their full course of treatment. He says this is unlikely to happen with the new medicine because it is so easy for patients to swallow one or two pills for a few days.

The Drugs for Neglected diseases initiative was established in 2003 by the Pasteur Institute and Doctors Without Borders along with four publicly-funded research organizations. The aim is to research and develop new and improved treatments for neglected diseases such as malaria.