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Friday, 1 June, 2001, 23:50 GMT 00:50 UK
Herb offers malaria treatment hope
Malaria is spread by mosquitoes
Malaria is spread by mosquitoes
The World Health Organization estimates malaria affects 300m people a year across the world.

Professor Nick White, who runs the Wellcome Trust's south-east Asia unit, told BBC News Online how rates of malaria were reduced by 90% - using a drug made from a Chinese herb.

The community of 120,000 displaced Burmese, living in camps on the north-west border of Thailand have many battles to fight.

In the past, malaria was one of those. The drugs which doctors would normally use were failing because the type of malaria prevalent in the camps was resistant to them.

But Professor Nick White, along with other doctors, heard about a drug used in China to treat malaria called quinghaosu.

Quinghaosu, or artemisinin - also known as sweet wormwood - provides a possible solution to the ever growing problem of salic falicparum - drug resistant malaria.

They are undeniable the most important anti-malarial drugs to be discovered in the last 50 years

Professor Nick White
Professor White, who has worked in south-east Asia for over 20 years, says the discovery provides a new weapon in the drugs arsenal against malaria.

In total, around 25,000 people have been involved in trials in Thailand and Africa.

'Fast and efficient'

Malaria kills one person every 30 seconds - adding up to one to two million deaths a year.

Professor White believes artemisinin should be urgently introduced in east Africa, where most of the deaths from malaria occur.

Professor Nick White: Chinese drug helps the fight against malaria
Malaria kills up to two million people a year
"By the mid-1990s, it looked as if we were going to be facing untreatable malaria before the end of the millennium."

But doctors began to evaluate combination treatments, using artemisinin.

All combinations were effective in curing malaria, said Professor White but, used together, artemisinin and mesloquine were 95% effective.

The number of cases in the camps was reduced by 90% because drugs prevented the transmission from person to person.

"They are undeniable the most important anti-malarial drugs to be discovered in the last 50 years," he said.

When the drug is used to treat people who already have malaria, it is fast and efficient, with no side effects.

Parasite mutation

Tuberculosis and Aids are already treated using combination therapy.

Professor White said using two drugs together would mean if the malaria parasite was resistant to one drug, the other should work.

The malaria parasite mutates so that the forms which are unaffected by mesloquine survive, he said.

"Resistance occurs because of a spontaneous mutation in the genes of the parasite.

"These are rare events but if they give the parasite the property of being resistant then they are selecting their own survival because all the other parasites will be killed."

Larger scale trials are now taking place on the Thailand border and the World Health Organization, which has a global aim to tackle malaria, is also involved in trials of the drug in Africa and Asia.

Professor White said: "They are going to see if these excellent results can be replicated. So far it's looking good."

The plant would be very difficult to synthesise, but there is enough being grown for current needs and some expansion.

It could also be grown in other countries, said Professor White, perhaps in southern Europe.

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See also:

23 May 01 | Health
Africa to get cheap malaria drug
25 Apr 01 | Africa
Africa tackles Malaria scourge
31 Dec 00 | Health
Scientists 'block malaria'
26 Jul 99 | Medical notes
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