Recent clinical studies carried out in sub-Saharan Africa have confirmed scientists’ worst fears: malaria parasites have developed resistance to a key family of drugs used to protect against them. Researchers have long suspected this, as signs associated with drug resistance such as gene mutations had already been detected in previous studies. However, the confirmation of resistance arising in Africa raises major concerns, as the continent alone carries over 90% of the global malaria burden.
Artemisinin-combination therapies (a combination of artemisinin and ‘partner’ drugs) are currently the main treatment option being used to fight the disease, as parasites often have difficulty developing resistance to multiple drugs. Unfortunately, research has demonstrated an observable drop in antimalarials’ ability to treat those with malaria quickly, with data showing that the parasite is taking longer to clear in those with severe infection. Worse still, resistance in Africa seems to have developed independently of resistant strains in south-east Asia, meaning that the strains now present on the continent could continue evolving into a ‘super resistant’ parasite.
In the late 1950s, chloroquine failed to treat malaria as P. falciparum quickly grew resistant to it and this may have led to millions of deaths. In Africa, where most victims – especially young children – are treated in rural areas with little infrastructure, the emergence of resistance could have disastrous consequences and lead to a higher death toll.
To address these issues and counter stalled progress in the fight against the disease, continuous innovation is paramount. Gene drive approaches for vector control could be used alongside existing and new interventions to complement and heighten their efficacy. Learn more about the emergence of drug resistance and what this could mean in the fight against malaria in this article via Nature.