The global fight against malaria hinges on a drug crafted by Chinese military experts assisting the Vietcong in the early 1970s, a World Health Organisation (WHO) expert said.
Jan Van Erps of the WHO's Roll Back Malaria Partnership called therapies using artemisinin, a Chinese medicine derived from wormwood, the last effective remedy against the parasitic disease that kills more than 1 million people every year.
"Artemisinin-based drug was developed by the Chinese military academies to help the Vietcong in the Vietnam War," Van Erps told a news briefing marking the first World Malaria Day.
"For this Chinese drug, in spite of 30 years of use in Southeast Asia, there is until today not any documentation of resistance," he said in Geneva.
About 40 percent of the world's population is at risk of malaria, according to the WHO. The disease thrives in damp areas such as the jungles of Vietnam, where American forces fought communist Vietcong and North Vietnamese fighters.
Making artemisinin therapies more easily available and at a cheaper price to health care providers in malaria-ridden countries is key to the drive to reduce the prevalence of the mosquito-borne disease, Van Erps said.
International health experts are seeking a scaling-up of international aid to $3.4 billion per year, from $1.2 billion, to expand the availability of artemisinin and insecticide-treated bed nets.
Those two efforts should make it possible to reduce the global prevalence of malaria to 5 percent of its current level by 2015, though eradicating the disease completely will require the development of an effective vaccine, or possibly a new drug in case artemisinin stops working, Van Erps said.
"Any antibiotic that you start using, sooner or later, will generate resistance," he said. "To get to the tail end of the epidemic we will need new tools."
It took the malaria parasite 19 years to build resistance to chloroquine, which is now largely ineffective, though it continues to be used in some places because it is substantially cheaper than artemisinin-based therapies, Van Erps said.
Novartis said this week it would cut prices on its malaria drug Coartem by a fifth to improve access to the treatment, which uses an artemisinin derivative plus an older drug lumefantrine. – (Laura MacInnis/Reuters Health)