WHO launches emergency initiative to control antimalarial drug resistance

The World Health Organization launched a global initiative on Wednesday to overcome a developing antimalarial drug resistance in the Southeast Asian region that is projected to become a global endemic if not controlled now.

"In recent years endemic countries, including countries in sub-Saharan Africa, have made major headway in reducing new cases and deaths from malaria," the WHO's Assistant Director-General for HIV, TB, Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases Dr. Hiroki Nakatani said. "But that progress could now be at risk. We are increasingly concerned by signs in the south-east Asia region that the malaria parasite is becoming resistant to some of the drugs that have helped make so much progress."

Drug resistance to antimalarial drugs by the malaria parasite was first seen in the 1960s with the antimalarial drug chloroquine in the Mekong region and later in Sub-African Regions, which lead to an increase in malaria related deaths that year.

Today's preferred method of antimalarial drugs are artemisinin-based combination therapies, but resistance is suspected to stem from poor quality antimalarial drugs and oral artemisinin-based monotherapies. Only 14 countries worldwide still offer these low-quality options but if a drug-resistant parasite develops there, it can travel beyond the borders and create a serious problem, officials said.

"We are at a tipping point. What seems to be a localized threat could easily get out of control and have serious implications for global health," the Director of WHO's Global Malaria Program Dr. Robert Newman said. "This response will require substantial funding, a high level of political commitment, and strengthened regional and cross-border collaboration."

Officials from the WHO have requested funding to research methods to combat drug-resistant malaria parasites and to provide accessible antimalarial measures to those who cannot afford drugs or preventative methods such as mosquito nets.

Although the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation, AudAID and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS have already committed to collectively donate more than $100 million to the WHO's cause, they still project to need an additional $300-350 million between through 2015 to get the ball rolling on the initiative. An estimated $5.1 billion annually will be needed between through 2020 to achieve global access to malaria prevention, detection and treatment methods.

In 2011, the WHO received $2.3 billion in funding for malaria prevention and treatment efforts, which is less than half of what it is projected to need. Although malaria is an entirely preventable and treatable disease, 660,000 people died in 2010 from the vector-borne disease.