Drug-resistant malaria parasites are now firmly established in border regions in four Southeast Asian countries, imperilling global efforts to control the disease, experts warned on Wednesday.
Blood samples taken from 1,241 malaria patients found that parasites which are resistant to the frontline drug artemisinin have spread to border areas in western and northern Cambodia, eastern Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, they said.
There also signs of emerging resistance in central Myanmar, southern Laos and northeastern Cambodia, but none in three African states -- Kenya, Nigeria and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) -- that were included in the sampling.
The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, said doubling the course of antimalarial treatment, from three days to six, could help fight the resistance problem but time was short.
"It may still be possible to prevent the spread of artemisinin-resistant malaria parasites across Asia and then to Africa by eliminating them, but that window of opportunity is closing fast," said Nicholas White, a professor of tropical medicine at Oxford University, England.
"Conventional malaria control approaches won't be enough -- we will need to take more radical action and make this a global public health priority, without delay."
Southeast Asia has been the source of growing worries that artemisinin is losing its edge as the weapon of choice against malaria.
If so, it will be the third time in little more than half a century that a drug will have been blunted by parasites that became resistant to it -- a process that has claimed millions of lives.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, parasites that were resistant to the drug chloroquine spread from Asia to Africa. AFP
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Drug-resistant malaria spreading fast