The World Health Organization has launched an emergency strategy to combat drug-resistant strains of malaria in Southeast Asia, saying they pose a “global threat” to public health.
The new regional framework launched on World Malaria Day on Thursday is aimed at containing resistance to artemisinin—the frontline drug used to fight the mosquito-borne infectious disease—which has been identified in Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam.
If the resistance were to spread from Southeast Asia to other parts of the world, particularly Africa, global progress on reducing the public health burden of the disease would be derailed, the WHO said.
“The consequences of widespread resistance to artemisinins would be catastrophic,” Robert Newman, director of WHO’s global malaria program, sad in a statement Wednesday.
“We must act now to protect Southeast Asia today and sub-Saharan Africa tomorrow,” he said.
The emergency strategy, which will cost about U.S. $400 million over the next three to four years, will work to remove poor-quality antimalarial drugs and other treatments that compromise the efficacy of artemisinin from circulation in affected countries.
The effort covers the four countries where artemisinin resistance has been found as well as neighboring Laos and southern China’s Yunnan and Guangxi provinces.
“This response will require substantial funding, a high level of political commitment, and strengthened regional and cross-border collaboration,” Newman said.
The WHO will also set up a regional hub to provide coordination and technical support in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, where the first cases of artemisinin-resistant malaria were confirmed in 2006.
Strains resistant to the drug, which is derived from a Chinese herb, first emerged in the Thailand-Cambodia border about nine years ago, the WHO has said.
While containment efforts there have been successful, new foci of resistance are being discovered in other areas of the Greater Mekong Subregion, the organization said this week.
In May, regional health representatives will gather in Manila to review country progress towards 2015 targets and discuss national treatment guidelines as part of the WHO’s Regional Action Plan for Malaria Control and Elimination in the Western Pacific.
Between 2000 and 2011, the Asia-Pacific region made overall progress in reducing its malaria burden, with a 73 percent decrease in malaria mortality rates, but there was a great variation between countries, according to the WHO.
Resistance does not prevent patients being cured thanks to partner drugs, but treatment typically takes a longer period and is more expensive.