WHO to combat resistance to key malaria drug

News release

The World Health Organization (WHO) is to launch a vigorous response to the worrying emergence of resistance to the antimalarial drug artemisinin in the Greater Mekong Subregion of South-East Asia.

Artemisinin is the frontline drug in the fight against malaria, and WHO says the emergence of resistance in Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam poses a serious global health threat.

"We are taking the situation very seriously," says Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific. "If resistance to artemisinin emerges elsewhere—particularly in Africa, which has the world's greatest number of malaria cases—the consequences for global health could be incalculable."

Artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs) are the most effective antimalarial treatments available today. They have been central to recent successes in global malaria control. Artemisinin-based combination therapies combine artemisinin—a traditional Chinese herbal drug—with another antimalarial drug. The artemisinin component kills the majority of parasites at the start of the treatment, while the partner drug clears the remaining parasites.

In response to the threat to resistance, WHO is to launch its "Emergency Response to Artemisinin Resistance in the Greater Mekong Subregion" (ERAR) —a strategic framework of support for the six countries of the Greater Mekong Subregion. Apart from the four affected countries, the region also includes China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Yunnan province and the Lao People's Democratic Republic—both of them seen as potentially at risk of resistance to artemisinin in a region that is highly inter-connected. The response will involve many partners working together across the region to scale up efforts to contain resistance.

The framework will be launched in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on 25 April, World Malaria Day. The launch will be accompanied by the setting-up of a WHO regional hub in the Cambodian capital to provide coordination and support for the intensified containment efforts set out in the framework.

Dr Shin says: "With the framework and the hub, we will have the pieces in place to provide the countries of the Greater Mekong Subregion with the support they will need to take on the challenges posed by resistance. The task is to contain resistance and then to eventually eliminate malaria from the region. For all this, we will need adequate financing."

Dr Shin calls for commitment at the highest level of government, and stressed that no country alone can tackle the problem. "The key to success will be an approach that is truly regional," he says. "It will need to bring together not only the governments of the Greater Mekong Subregion and beyond, but also the expertise and support that can be tapped in pan-regional organizations, with support from our partners."

"The world is watching," Dr Shin says. "We cannot afford to fail."

For more information, please contact:

Dr Eva-Maria Christophel
Team Leader, Malaria, other Vectorborne and Parasitic diseases
Tel.: +632 528 9723
E-mail: christophele@wpro.who.int

Mr Timothy O'Leary
Public Information Officer
Tel.: +632 528 9992
E-mail: olearyt@wpro.who.int