The World Health Organisation on Thursday announced a $ 400 million programme to combat a resistant strain of malaria that has emerged in South-east Asia in recent years.

The programme, which has already received around one-third of the required funding, will seek to prevent the spread of a falciparum parasite that has become resistant to artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT), the global standard treatment for the disease.

Robert Newman, the Director of the WHO’s global malaria programme, said resistance had been found in areas of Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam, which would form the core focus for operations.

Laos and part of southern China are also included as they are perceived to be “at risk.” The programme, known as the Emergency Response to Artemisinin Resistance (ERAR), will scale up some of the work done in recent years during an ongoing and to date successful containment of an earlier outbreak of ACT-resistant malaria on the Thai-Cambodian border.

Hundreds of thousands of insecticide-treated bed nets were handed out, for example, and key people in every village in that part of Cambodia were trained to test for malaria and provide free drugs to treat it. The authorities also cracked down on fake medicines.

Serious global health threat

“The emergency response is built on all of those experiences,” said Mr. Newman. “The plan now is to say that we’ve had these small experiences, but now we need to take them to scale in all the areas that are affected if we want to be successful.” The WHO has warned that the emergence of resistance to artemisinin “poses a serious global health threat” should it escape the region, and said gains made in recent years could be lost.

The Australian Government’s development arm AusAID is one of the donors to ERAR, along with the Global Fund and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Ben David, AusAID’s principal health advisor, said that because artemisinin resistance was a regional issue, solving that problem would require governments to work together, particularly on issues such as reaching migrant communities.

“We need to tackle regional surveillance and strengthen that,” Mr. David said. “And we need to improve drug quality — again that’s a regional issue. So we want to see strong coordination and better coordination.” WHO said malaria killed 660,000 people worldwide last year. Most were children living in Africa, and most died from a strain of malaria that is resistant to chloroquine, which was for decades the standard treatment. The chloroquine-resistant strain emerged in western Cambodia in the 1950s.

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