Acquire the license to the best health content in the world
Contact Us

Military Testing New Malaria Drug

Medication derived from Chinese herb could cut deaths by a third, researcher says

TUESDAY, Dec. 13, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Stymied by a lack of interest from pharmaceutical companies, the U.S. military is launching an effort to test a new intravenous drug that could prevent one-third of malaria deaths worldwide.

The drug, derived from a Chinese herb called artemisia annua, is used in some parts of the world, such as Thailand and China. But it's not approved in the United States, therefore the military won't use it on soldiers infected with malaria abroad.

Meanwhile, other countries haven't adopted its use, said Dr. Peter J. Weina, department chief of pharmacology at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. He will report on the new drug's progress this week at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

Despite advances in treatment, malaria continues to kill as many as 2.7 million people a year worldwide. Weina said an estimated 3,000 children a day die of the disease.

"Imagine six 747s worth of kids crashing every single day; that's how many kids in Africa," Weina said. "It's outrageous, almost too big to get your head around."

The well-known drug quinine, derived from the cinchona tree, has largely disappeared as a malaria treatment, replaced by more effective oral drugs. In serious cases, the intravenous drug quinidine is used, but it's very difficult to find in the United States and has serious and potentially deadly side effects. Also, it doesn't always work in the most severe cases.

Malaria is "capable of moving like wildfire and making someone pretty sick pretty fast," said Dr. Claire Panosian, a clinical professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the University of California, Los Angeles. Also, she said, some people are "pretty cavalier" about taking preventive drugs, especially because they have side effects.

Enter artemisinin, an intravenous drug derived from a Chinese herb that appears to poison malaria parasites in red blood cells. While it appears to do a better job of eliminating malaria from the bloodstream than other drugs, it's not approved in the United States.

Why? The answer has to do with the lack of a market in this country, where malaria is extremely rare. "There are a few drugs that fall into this category of things we really should have, but there isn't any incentive or justification for a commercial entity to jump into this pool," Panosian explained.

The military is hoping to change things, and it has launched early clinical tests of the drug. The goal, Weina said, is to get U.S. approval for the drug as early as 2007 and push for wider use around the world.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on malaria.

SOURCES: Peter J. Weina, M.D., Ph.D., department chief, pharmacology, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Silver Spring, Md.; Claire Panosian, M.D., clinical professor, medicine and infectious diseases, University of California, Los Angeles; Dec. 11-15, 2005, American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene annual meeting, Washington, D.C.
Consumer News