Concern spreads about drug-resistant malaria

While the overall number of malaria cases in Southeast Asia is declining, the percentage of drug-resistant cases is rising, causing even greater concern.

Experts fear that resistant strains of the mosquito-borne illness could eliminate recent gains made against disease worldwide, according to

Southeast Asia has been a past hotspot for malarial drug-resistance, and if it spreads to India or Africa, where malaria is a major public health problem, the results could approach a catastrophe.

"Resistance to chloroquine and pyrimethamine started here," Arjen Dondorp, the director of malaria research at the Mahidol-Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Bangkok, said, according to "Those two were very important drugs until recently. Very cheap, good drugs. We've lost them to resistance, especially here in the region. And then it has spread from here to the rest of the world."

Over the past few years, artemisinin-based treatments have become the frontline medicines for use against malaria. Some consider them the last, best treatment to stop the illness. In the last decade, the number of malaria deaths has dropped from approximately one million to 650,000, thanks to artemisinin and the introduction of bed netting.

"Chloroquine resistance was very bad in the '90s before the artemisinin drugs were introduced and has caused millions of deaths in Africa," Dondorp said, reports. "So the big fear is that the same could happen with artemisinins."

Artemisinin resistance is quickly spreading through the region. It was first identified along both sides of Thailand's border with Myanmar in the west and more recently with Cambodia in the east. In addition, there have been reports of resistance in Vietnam, but it remains unclear how widespread it has become.