Malaria continues as a major health threat, killing more than a million people a year, most of them African children under age five. In the battle against the disease, researchers are promoting a relatively new and more effective approach using a substance extracted from the root of a plant grown in China and Vietnam. It’s called artemisinin and it’s said to be much more effective than traditional drugs.
Dr. Peter Olumese is the World Health Organization’s medical officer in charge of global guidelines and policies for treating malaria. He says artemisinin is the most effective anti-malarial drug available today. He says it works against “resistance parasites,” is relatively safe, and is very effective when combined with other anti-malarial drugs, especially in treating the most dangerous form of the disease -- falciparum malaria. Olumese says, “The artemisinins are the only hope we have presently.”
He says scientists have learned from treating tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS with anti-retroviral drugs that combination therapy is more effective than single drug application. He says it’s important to combine artemisinin with other drugs to reduce resistance, and that, as of now, is WHO’s recommendation.
OUT OF REACH
Olumese says artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs) are “significantly more expensive than the traditional anti-malarial medicines, like chloroquine.” He says, for example, chloroquine treatment costs approximately ten cents per adult [per dose,] whereas the artemisinin combinations cost approximately $2.40 [per adult.] But he says traditional medicines are virtually not useful now because of resistance buildup.
Olumese says effectively subsidizing artemisinin therapies “is something that would really make a big difference” in getting treatment to those in need in sub-Saharan Africa and in other areas where malaria is endemic, because the drugs are otherwise unaffordable. He adds that the Global Fund, as well as President Bush’s malaria initiative, “have helped a great deal in making funds available for most governments in Africa to purchase some of those medicines; however, there is still a big gap.”
Olumese says a report by the US Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommended national, even global, subsidies to bring down the price of the ACTs to the point of no cost to the user, meaning it’s free to those who cannot afford it; “otherwise we would have very good medicines, but [they] would not have significant impact.” But Olumese says that currently the Global Fund, the president’s malaria initiative and the World Bank are providing funds for the purchase of ACTS for Africa.