Antimalarial Treatments Face a Setback as Fake Drugs Spread Through Stricken Areas

Researchers have recently found that a large wave of counterfeit antimalarial drugs have been circulating throughout many areas of Africa and Southeast Asia—areas in which the deadly disease is most prevalent.  Dr. Paul Newton, of the Wellcome Trust-Mahosot Hospital-Oxford University Tropical Medicine Research Collaboration, described how he and his colleagues tested antimalarial drugs commonly used, in 11 countries between 2002 and 2010.  What they found was an alarming amount of ineffective drugs intended to treat malaria, having an equal and opposite effect. 

Malaria (a highly infectious disease transferred from person to person by way of mosquito bites) is like most diseases in that it can be successfully treated with the correct medications and in the proper doses. However, the counterfeit drugs obtained and studied by Newton and his team only contained the minimum amount of the effective ingredients (artemisinin derivatives), allowing the drugs to pass authenticity tests but not enough to complete cure a person of the disease.  Artemisinin derivatives are largely capable of treating cases of malaria but, without its full and correct dosage, it can do more harm than good. 

“What the counterfeits have done is basically watered down the level of drug in the tablet and then they’ve [the criminals supplying the fake medicine] added in other things that will have no effect against the malarial parasite,” explains Professor Alan Cowman from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Victoria, Australia.  Cowman is a prominent figure among malarial researchers, and sees this problem as not only a way of short-changing an individual of their medicine but also providing the perfect grounds for the disease to build a resistance to the drugs—kicking the legs out from under current efforts to stop the spread of the disease in these areas. 

In the past, both chloroquine and mefloquine were used to combat malaria, but their potency was diluted (in much the same way that current medicine is seeing) down to an amount where the drugs were no longer able to stand alone.  Instead they now work best when combined with artemisinin derivatives to quell the symptoms of malaria and work to eradicate it.  The same is feared of the artemisinin derivatives if the fake drugs continue to be dispersed.  Dr. Jimmy Whitworth, the Head of International Activities at the Wellcome Trust, believes that if a resistant strain of malaria were to spread in these areas, the results would be disastrous. “The effect could be devastating on efforts to control malaria in Africa,” Whitworth points out.

So what work is being down to eliminate the false medications being brought into areas plagued with malaria?

Dr. Newton and others are looking towards public health organizations to help prevent further counterfeit medication from entering and traveling throughout impacted areas, in addition to amping-up the quality of medicine administered to the patients.   Every year approximately 800,000 people die from malaria throughout the world.  According to a 2009 report, another 450,000 people die ingesting fake medication.  To petition Dr. Margaret Chan, of the World Health Organization (WHO), and ask for WHO’s attention in doing this, sign the petition here.

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