Single mutation threatens gains in fight against malaria

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - A single mutation in the parasite that causes malaria is responsible for creating a strain of the disease that is resistant to the drug once able to fight it, according to a new study.

Using parasite samples collected in Cambodia, scientists determined that a 30-percent drop in the number of malaria deaths since the 1990s could be under threat if the mutated strains, which have been emerging predominantly in Southeast Asia, are able to spread.

Sonny Krishnan, an advocacy officer of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Cambodia, told The Anadolu Agency on Monday that the mutation was “a worrisome development.”

An introduction to the study, published in the journal Science over the weekend, says: “Over the last decade, artemisinin, the most powerful drug available to cure malaria, has failed in more and more people in Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, and border regions of Thailand.”  

Researchers believe that the study will assist health officials and scientists to “identify and track resistant parasites and perhaps find better ways to kill them.”

In a statement released last week, the Columbia University Medical Centre said researchers worked with Cambodian and French scientists in trying to determine what was making the strain resistant to anti-malarial drugs.

There are four malarial parasites. Of these, Plasmodium falciparum is the most deadly, according to WHO, and is transmitted by a particular breed of female mosquito.

The study “builds on a recent report that mutations in the gene K1 are frequently found in drug-resistant parasites in Southeast Asia,” the statement said, adding that research “showed definitively that K13 mutations directly cause drug resistance.”

Scientists had previously believed that the resistance was owing to multiple mutations within the parasite, but the university says now that the new information means health officials in affected countries should try to stamp out the problem where it appears, before it can spread.

This would be the approach in tackling the disease, according to Krishnan from WHO’s Emergency Response to Artemisinin Resistance team.

He explained that the K13 mutation is essentially a “propeller” discovered earlier this year that is found not only in western Cambodia, but also in parts of Africa.

“What is happening right now in terms of mutation is that it springs out independently all over the greater Mekong [river] region,” Krishnan told AA.

“K13 has been found at the Thai/Myanmar border, the Cambodia/Laos border and also in southern Vietnam. In our strategy, which we will implement next year, we are calling for the elimination of falciparum malaria rather than trying to adopt a firewall approach of containing the artemisinin resistant malaria in one spot.”

Around 548,000 people were killed by malaria in 2013, with 90 percent of the deaths occurring in Africa, according to WHO figures. 

In its report for 2014 published earlier this month, the organization says an estimated 3.2 billion people are at risk of being infected with malaria.

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