Scientists in Rwanda have identified a drug-resistant strain of the parasite that causes malaria.
The study, published in Nature, found that the parasites were able to resist treatment with artemisinin ̵
This is the first time scientists have observed resistance to the drug artemisinin in Africa.
Researchers warn that this “would pose a major threat to public health” on the continent.
Researchers from the Pasteur Institute, in collaboration with the National Malaria Control Program in Rwanda (Biomedical Center Rwanda), the World Health Organization (WHO), Cochin Hospital and Columbia University (New York, USA) analyzed blood samples from patients in Rwanda.
They found one specific mutation in the artemisinin-resistant parasite in 19 of 257 – or 7.4% – of patients at one of the health centers they observed.
Evolution of parasites
In the journal’s article, researchers warn that malaria parasites that develop resistance to previous drugs are “suspected of contributing to millions of additional malaria deaths in young African children in the 1980s.”
When the first anti-malarial drug, chloroquine, was developed, researchers believed the disease would be eradicated in years to come.
But since the 1950s, parasites have evolved to develop resistance to consistent drugs.
This is a deeply worrying and extremely important moment. Today it is failing in the fight against malaria.
Artemisinin resistance is not new, as it has been in parts of Southeast Asia for more than a decade.
In some regions there, 80% of patients are infected with malaria parasites that resist treatment.
But Africa has always been the biggest concern – there are more than nine out of 10 cases of the disease.
Resistance appears to have developed in malaria parasites in Africa, rather than spreading from Southeast Asia to the mainland.
However, the result is the same – malaria is increasingly difficult to treat.
Malaria infection is usually treated with a combination of two drugs – artemisinin and piperaquine.
However, malaria parasites then began to develop resistance to artemisinin – this was first reported in 2008 in Southeast Asia.
At the time, scientists feared that resistance to artemisinin could develop in Africa and have devastating consequences.
Research shows that these fears may have been realized.
In 2018, African countries accounted for more than 90% of more than 400,000 registered malaria deaths.
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