Raising concerns over a drug-resistant form of malaria has clinics in Thailand on alert.
KANCHANABURI, THAILAND (OCTOBER 26, 2012) (REUTERS) - A small crowd of people gathered outside a malaria clinic in the Sai Yok District of Kanchanaburi, Thailand on Friday (October 26), a province located roughly 167 kilometres (103 miles) west of Bangkok.
They wait to be seen by health workers who busily take blood samples and patients temperatures to determine their condition.
Scaled up efforts to control malaria have decreased the number of cases since the year 2000, but in recent years the progress has been threatened by the emergence of drug-resistant malaria parasites in Southeast Asia.
The Chief of Vector Borne Disease, Dr. Wittaya Saiphomsud at the clinic said out of 190 cases of malaria in the last month, they were waiting for the results of 40, which may show drug resistance.
"We have to wait for the results of the PCR tests before knowing if the 40 cases are old diseases or a new form. Because this area is at high risk of malaria, sick patients may contract new diseases or still have the same disease that they haven't recovered from. We just have to wait for the results," Dr. Wittaya said.
Also at the clinic were members of Roll Back Malaria Partnership (RBM). An organization launched by World Health Organisation (WHO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank in 1998.
Their visit came six months after the WHO called for more research funding into a drug-resistant malaria in Thai borders.
Malaria infects more than 200 million people worldwide every year and kills over 600,000 of them - primarily children under age five in sub-Saharan Africa.
Most severe forms of malaria are caused by the parasite plasmodium falciparum, which is spread by mosquitoes.
Experts say one of the most challenging features of this parasite is its ability to evolve and overcome anti-malarial drugs - a factor which is undermining global work towards eradicating the killer disease.
Thailand's Ministry of Public Health said 2004 saw roughly 51,000 cases of malaria which jumped to 63,000 in 2006.
Dr. Nafo-Traore, the Executive Director of RBM, said there is a concern over the spread of the resistance to the top-line anti-malarial drugs in the Greater Mekong subregion.
"It's mainly Thailand, Cambodia, and we're seeing new development in the Great Mekong region that needs to be studied, well understood before any action is taken. But the most important thing is to scale up the use of the current available intervention for universal access to treatment," she said.
Many residents in the surrounding area are Thai or Burmese and said they were glad to have malaria clinics close by.
"Sometimes you have to test the blood two or three times before seeing the disease. If there is a disease, the doctor will give us medicine. Some people, outside our family, are allergic to the medication or are kids or pregnant women, if you have the disease, you can't take the medication. So they are taken to the hospital," said a 40-year old mother of two who goes by the name Mollay.
At the Sai Yok District hospital, doctors said malaria can be treated if got to in time.
"Malaria for the most part doesn't kill people, if you can treat the disease in time. The majority of cases where the patient dies are when the patient came too late and the symptoms are already severe. Even then if we give them medicine, it still might not be in time."
It issued its first warning about the drug resistance threat in the Greater Mekong sub-region in 2005. Since then efforts have been made to scale up monitoring and intensify containment.
WHO reports the threat of malaria in Southeast Asia is second to that of Sub-Sahara Africa. It estimates around 1.32 people are at risk with 2.4 million cases reported in 2010 and 2426 deaths.