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Superbug: an emerging and quickly spreading threat to the race against malaria

February 17, 2017 - 09:46 -- Salomé Beaujouan

While the malaria death count in Cambodia dropped to just one case in 2016, a new threat to the race against the disease arises in south-eastern Asia: superbugs. A superbug is a drug-resistant, human-killing parasite that modern medicine struggles to combat.

In the case of malaria, the superbug that is currently spreading in south-eastern Asia is multi-drug resistant. This means that the DHA-piperaquine therapy (that combines both artemisinin and piperaquine drugs) used nowadays to treat falciparum malaria, is becoming useless. This superbug is spreading rapidly in western Cambodia, north-eastern Thailand and southern Laos and only concerns the deadliest form of malaria: Plasmodium falciparum.

How did this superbug appear? Humans have unintentionally helped the parasite to develop itself. The DHA-piperaquine therapy, when taken correctly, is very efficient against malaria. But in many cases, people only take artemisinin on its own, take incomplete courses or take substandard-quality drugs. In other cases, they don’t even make it to clinics for diagnosis and treatment. All these cases, which are very common in the world’s poorest areas, drive drug resistance. That is what happened recently in south-eastern Asia.

Scientifically speaking, the emergence of the superbug is due to a single mutant parasite lineage, that replaces parasites containing less artemisinin-resistant mutations. This lineage appears to be fitter, more transmissible and able to spread more widely.

The phenomenon had already been observed twice in history. The first time (from the late 1950s to the 1970s) chloroquine-resistant malaria parasites appeared in Asia and then spread into Africa leading to a resurgence of malaria and causing millions of deaths. Chloroquine had then been replaced by sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine treatment and the exact same sequence of events happened.

If this scenario repeats itself, it could lead to a global public health disaster. Specialists say superbugs are the most dangerous threat to the progress achieved so far. Efforts to control malaria in Asia must be stepped up urgently before it spreads into Africa and becomes close to untreatable.

What are the solutions to overcome the threat? The Global Fund has created the Regional Artemisinin-Resistance Initiative (RAI) to fight this superbug. “We are currently working to close gaps in supply chains, so the right drugs are in the right places at the right time” reported the RAI Head of Program. Another solution lies in the efficient gathering of surveillance data (via efficient diagnosis reporting) so that when an outbreak flairs up, an appropriate response can be deployed immediately.