BANGKOK — Health ministers from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) are being asked to support United Nations efforts to stem the spread of drug-resistant strains of malaria, especially along the borders of Cambodia and Burma.
Scientists fear resistant strains of malaria may spread beyond South East Asia, reaching continents such as Africa, a region with many victims of the mosquito-borne parasite.
Thomas Teuscher, executive director of the United Nations-backed Roll Back Malaria Partnership (RBM), says more effort is needed to ensure that drug-resistant malaria at least remains localized in South East Asia.
"Right now we need to intensify our attention and action in a way to keep the world safe from malaria epidemics in the future by making sure the medicines we use at present remain useful for as long as possible - so the topic of containing the spread of drug resistance in the Great Mekong Region," Teuscher said.
The World Health Organization (WHO) - a key supporter in RBM - together with the World Bank and United Nations agencies, says malaria threatens 2.2 billion people in 20 countries across the Asia Pacific region with 330 million at risk in the ASEAN countries alone.
In 2010 the Asia Pacific region had 28 million cases of malaria with 38,000 lives lost. Over 90 per cent of the deaths occurred in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea.
Health officials have been alarmed by the growing numbers of malaria patients in Thailand and Cambodia and in the border regions of Malaysia.
Scientists blame the consumption of single-use drugs and sales of fake drugs as the key reasons for the growing drug resistance. Teuscher says the concerns are growing that drug treatments will fail at some point.
"At present it is the threat of drug resistance - to site the World Health Organization correctly - it takes more time to clear the parasite in the blood of malaria patients at present. But the drug still eventually cures people but it just takes a lot more time. So that is a strong indication that the drug might at some point not work at all anymore."
Teuscher called for more cross border cooperation to contain the threat of drug-resistant malaria from spreading. But he says to succeed it requires "perfect case" management of all malaria fevers, avoidance of mono-therapies and careful monitoring.
He is hopeful with sufficient resources malaria may eventually be wiped out.
"We can go very far and it is mostly an issue of political commitment to deploy that vision at the strategic background in the right place of course and to then mobilize a broad range of financial and human resources to make that happen," Teuscher added. "It is possible, if I were young, one could probably say with an effort, this commitment, we can achieve it over the next 30 years, but it requires harmonized vision."
The two days of meetings in Phuket, Thailand are set to conclude Friday with discussions also on control of chronic non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic lung diseases.
Other topics are universal health care, tobacco controls, the spread of the AIDS virus in urban areas as well as emergency disaster management.
ASEAN health ministers and officials are being joined in the talks with ministers from China, Japan and South Korea.