A form of malaria resistant to the most powerful drugs available may have emerged along the Thai-Myanmar border as well as Vietnam, and containment measures are planned, the World Health Organisation said.
Clinical trials are due to begin soon in Myanmar and if they confirm artemisinin-resistant malaria in some patients, it means millions living in the border area could be potentially exposed to the longer-to-treat form, a WHO official said.
Artemisinin-resistant malaria first broke out in the Mekong region along the Thai-Cambodian border by early 2007, raising fears that a dangerous new form of the mosquito-borne disease could be spreading across the globe.
Early warning signals
"We have some early warning signals that apart from the border of Thailand and Cambodia, we could have some problems emerging at the border between Myanmar and Thailand, and also in one province of Vietnam," said Dr Pascal Ringwald of the WHO's global malaria programme.
Myanmar authorities are holding a meeting on a proposed strategy to contain its spread in the military-ruled country, expected in December or January. Vietnam also wants help to contain suspect cases in its Binh Phouc province, Dr Ringwald said.
Insecticide-treated mosquito nets would be distributed so people can protect themselves while sleeping or at work in the forests, and free screening and treatment would be offered.
A similar plan used along the Thai-Cambodian border to protect 4 million people, including seasonal rubber workers, led to a "drastic reduction" in cases, according to Ringwald.
Artemisinin, derived from the sweet wormwood, or Artemisia annua plant, is the best drug available against malaria, especially when used in artemisinin combination therapy (ACT), which combines it with other drugs that finish off the parasite.
Swiss drugmaker Novartis and Sanofi-Aventis of France make the most widely-used ACTs, expected to treat 80 million and 50 million patients, respectively this year, said Tim Wells of the Medicines for Malaria Venture. (Reuters Health/ November 2010)