Updated at 11.50 a.m. EST on 2012-08-25
Health officials from four countries in Southeast Asia met in Cambodia on Friday to devise strategies on how to contain malaria in the face of the threat from drug-resistant strains of the mosquito-borne infectious disease.
Health officials from Cambodia, Burma, Thailand, and Laos gathered in Siem Reap province to exchange information about the fight against the disease and on how to prevent the ability of the malaria parasite to survive drugs intended to kill it quickly.
Their coordinated efforts have seen some success in reducing the malaria threat in the region, Cambodia’s Minister of Health Mam Bunheng said at the two-day meeting which began Thursday and was sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development.
“Health officials are working to combat malaria along the borders of Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma. The process has been smooth and we have succeeded in reducing the cases of malaria and the death tolls,” he said.
But strains resistant to the commonly used artemisinin drug found on the Cambodia-Thailand border and the Thailand-Burma border are posing a challenge.
“We are working to eliminate the drug-resistant malaria,” he said.
The strains resistant to artemisinin, a drug derived from a Chinese herb, first emerged in the Thailand-Cambodia border about eight years ago, the World Health Organization has said, with the first cases of resistance confirmed in western Cambodia in 2006.
Earlier this year, researchers found other cases in the Thailand-Burma border area.
Wichai Satimai, the director of Thailand’s Bureau of Vector-Borne Disease in the Ministry of Public Health, said health officials are stepping up the fight against the disease near Pailin and its neighboring Koh Kong province in Cambodia.
Resistance to artemisinin does not prevent patients being cured thanks to partner drugs, but treatment typically takes a longer period and is more expensive.
The WHO has found suspected cases of artemisinin resistance in Burma and Vietnam and along the Burma-China border, but it has only confirmed cases in western Cambodia and western Thailand.
Scientists have not yet determined whether the resistance in the Thailand-Cambodia and Thailand-Burma border areas are related or whether they emerged independently.
WHO officials are cautiously optimistic about preventing the spread of resistance to artemisinin.
"So far, we haven't found any artemisinin resistance outside the Mekong region … I think we have good chances to keep it in the Mekong region," Pascal Ringwald, coordinator of the global malaria program for the World Health Organization (WHO) said at a meeting of experts on antimalarial drug resistance in Bangkok in April.
Although considerable progress has been made in malaria control in the region made up of six countries of the Mekong River basin—Burma, Cambodia, China, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam—malaria remains a major concern for the international community and ministries of health in the region, the U.S. government says.
It plans to spend U.S. $12 million to combat malaria in the region in the 2012 financial year.
Officials said Cambodia, which has earmarked U.S. $20 million to combat malaria, has had some success in reducing the general malaria threat over the past year.
In the first seven months of 2012, Cambodia saw 42,000 cases of malaria, with at least 30 deaths, mostly in Kompong Cham and Kratie province.
The cases decreased by 23 percent compared to 2011, when there were 55,000 cases in the first seven months.
Reported by Hang Sobratsavyouth for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.