BANGKOK— World Health Organization and United Nations authorities say a growing challenge in combating malaria is the increasing evidence of drug resistant strains in Southeast Asia. Health officials are meeting in Australia this week to better organize a regional approach to combating the disease.
A global partnership led by the World Health Organization says, despite gains with falling mortality rates in the past decade, malaria remains a global health problem, claiming the lives of more than 650,000 people a year - mostly in Africa.
In Asia, the most affected countries are India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Burma. Across the region in 2010 the WHO says malaria affected 30 million people and killed 42,000.
Now, growing evidence of a drug resistant strain of malaria in Southeast Asia is leading to fears that it could spread, perhaps adding as many as 200,000 people to the global death toll.
Fatoumata Nafo-Traore is the executive director of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, a joint effort among the WHO, United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the World Bank and others. She says authorities are focused on better understanding the drug resistant strain.
"The development of the parasite resistance to the artemisinin combination [drug] therapy…that is the biggest challenge and it started in the border with Cambodia and Thailand... but we’ve started really taking concrete action on that," she said.
The WHO says other signs of drug resistant strains have appeared on the Thai-Burma border as well as in Vietnam.
But Nafo-Traore says a challenge also lies in a continuing funding gap. She is looking to the private sector to make up the shortfall.
"It is critical for us to maintain the level of funding and work on increasing it through other sources of funding. That is why we are looking at improving domestic resources - engaging the private sector for more resources for malaria control because malaria is also linked to employment absenteeism, absenteeism at the school level - a lack of investment," said Nafo-Traore.
In a bid to consolidate Asia Pacific regional cooperation, Australia is sponsoring a conference this week, marking the first regional political summit on malaria.
Nafo-Traore says, although Australia is presently malaria free, the government has made it a priority to support countries to eliminate malaria. She hopes Australia will provide more financial support to less developed regional countries to enable them to further push back malaria.