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Study: Nearly Half Senegal Malaria Drugs Fail Quality Testing

A survey of malaria drugs has found that in three African countries anti-malaria drugs are of poor quality. The joint U.S. and World Health Organization study has found that up to 40 percent of artemisinin-based drugs in Senegal, Madagascar, and Uganda, failed quality tests.

Researchers found that between 26 and 44 percent of the malaria pills tested were low quality. Problems included impurities or pills not containing enough active ingredient.

U.S. Pharmacopeia, a nonprofit public-health organization, conducted the research, the first part of a 10-country survey of malaria drugs by the United States and the World Health Organization.

WHO researcher Lembit Rago says ineffective drugs can lead to an increase in deaths. "Not necessarily all the sub-standard drugs are absolutely without any therapeutic effect, but if it goes to the extreme then this is what can happen," he said.

Malaria is caused by parasites that are transmitted to people through the bites of infected mosquitoes. It can be fatal but it is preventable and curable.

According to the World Health Organization, the best available treatment is a combination of drugs known as artemisinin-based combination therapies. But it is these drugs that researchers say are being widely distributed at low quality standards.

Rago says if low quality drugs are used, people may build up immunity to the active ingredients - making the medication ineffective. "It has been hypothesized that if you use low quality drugs then gradually you may facilitate the resistance," he said.

The U.S. researchers studied 200 samples of anti-malarial drugs in quality-control testing. Nearly half the drugs from Senegal failed the tests, 30 percent from Madagascar failed, and one-quarter from Uganda.

The research found that in Madagascar and Senegal bad drugs were available in both the public and private sectors. But all drugs tested from the public sector in Uganda passed the quality tests.

Rago says better regulatory controls need to be put in place for the drugs market. "In Africa one of the biggest problems is that the local authorities and governments are having very big difficulties at controlling local markets," he said.

This three-country study is the first part of a 10-country survey of anti-malarials in Africa. The results from the other countries surveyed have not yet been released by the World Health Organization. According to the U.N. agency, malaria resulted in nearly one-million deaths in 2006, mostly among African children.