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Drug Shown to Dramatically Cut Malaria Deaths

For the first time, new research shows that a drug derived from an ancient Chinese herb prevents death in severe cases of malaria. Researchers hope their finding results in greater availability of the drug.

Experts say, left untreated, death is certain in severe cases of malaria. But in the first large, clinically controlled trial of artesunate, a drug derived from the leaves of the ancient Chinese plant artemisinin, mortality was slashed by 35 percent.

"No trial has ever shown before a reduction in severe mortality with a new anti-malarial drug," said tropical medicine specialist Nick White, of Mahidol University in Bangkok, who led the study.

The study involved almost 15,000 people in Bangladesh, Indonesia, India and Burma. Researchers gave half of the gravely ill adults artesunate. The other half received quinine, the standard treatment for malaria in Africa and throughout many parts of Asia.

Since the 1960s, quinine has become less effective as the malaria parasite becomes more resistant to quinine.

In the study, the death rate among those treated with quinine was 22 percent compared to 15 percent in the artesunate treated group.

Researchers have known for a long time about artemisinin's effectiveness as a malaria treatment. But, according to Dr. White, supplies have been limited because of the slow regulatory process in many countries.

"Obviously, now with this information, we hope that there will be an immediate upgrading of the facilities or at least a quality approval of this product and greater availability," added Dr. White. "It's a little strange that such a valuable drug is so difficult to get."

The study comparing artesunate and quinine appears in the August 25 issue of the journal The Lancet.