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New Malaria Treatments Discussed at NY Symposium - 2004-04-30

Representatives from world organizations, donor countries and private groups are meeting in New York to discuss a new way to combat the spread of malaria.

The international symposium, named ACT Now, is aimed at getting more countries in Africa to adopt a new type of treament against malaria. Experts at the conference say increasing resistance to anti-malarial drugs currently used is making those methods ineffective.

Instead, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the private Doctors Without Borders or Medicins Sans Frontieres are promoting a different drug treatment, called Artemisinin-based Combination Therapy, or ACT, which is derived from a plant. Not only do people treated with ACT feel better faster, but the medicine also gets rid of more quickly the parasites that cause malaria. This reduces the disease's ability to spread through the mosquito.

Dr. Fatoumata Nafo-Traore, director of the Roll Back Malaria campaign at the WHO says the new medicines are needed most in sub-Saharan Africa.

"Ninety percent of the burden of malaria worldwide is on Africa; 90 percent of the deaths [from] malaria, the one million people per year, 90 percent is in also in Africa and mostly the under-five years," said Fatoumata Nafo-Traore. "Then Africa is the most important region to focus on if we want to really to tackle malaria."

However, ever since the WHO first endorsed the new drug therapy in 2001, progress has been slow in getting these new medicines to patients in Africa. The reasons, cost and lack of supply. African countries simply cannot afford switching to ACT drugs, which are 10 times more expensive than those currently being used. And drug manufacturers are reluctant to produce these more expensive medicines without some assurances these drugs will be bought.

Two years ago, donor countries and private organizations set up the Global Fund to tackle AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis in underdeveloped countries. This has provided some of the much-needed financial help countries need in adopting the new anti-malarial drugs.

Dr. Kopano Mukelabai, senior health adviser at UNICEF, says funding is the key issue on whether African countries will use ACT . "The governments in Africa are aware of the new magic drug called artimisinin based combination treatment," said Kopano Mukelabai. "But they knew they could not afford it. So they could not change to something they cannot afford and cannot sustain in the long run. But now that funding is beginning to be available at the international level and countries are beginning to see that other countries are actually changing and they're getting money from the Global Fund, this is an encouragement."

According to the WHO, 30 countries worldwide have so far adopted ACT as a first line defense against malaria. Fifteen of those countries are in Africa. But whether these countries are successful in making the new medicines available to their populations depends on increased donor assistance.

Although the WHO estimates countries are receiving about $200 million a year from outside sources to combat malaria, the health organization says African countries need about $1 billion per year to effectively control malaria.