BY: DUSTIN BATTY
Although malaria is affecting people around the world from Asia to South America, the vast majority of malaria cases are in Africa. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “88% of global cases [of malaria] and 90% of global deaths [caused by the disease] occurred in the African Region” in 2015. The development of treatments has been generally successful, though, and the malaria death rate dropped by about two thirds between the years 2000 and 2015.
Preventative measures such as the “use of insecticide-treated nets” and “engagement of communities in malaria control” have been successful in reducing the number of people who are infected with the parasite. For those who do get infected, biochemists have developed artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT), which is a treatment that uses artemisinin (a chemical that is found in the plant Artemisia annua, also known as Chinese wormwood) in combination with other anti-malaria drugs. They don’t always combine it with the same drugs, and the combination is meant to prevent the malaria parasite from developing immunity to the treatment.
ACT has been largely successful in curing malaria and saving lives. Unfortunately, there are two things about ACT that prevent it from being the final solution to the malaria problem. The first is the cost—ACT is an expensive treatment to implement. The second is the fact that some strains of malaria have already become resistant to it.
More and more strains of malaria, a mosquito-borne parasite, are becoming resistant to Western treatment methods.
In a clinic in the Congo, though many patients were successfully cured with ACT, 18 patients “with severe malaria” were unresponsive to treatments of ACT or any other conventional method. According to a report, as a “last resort,” these 18 patients were treated with dried leaf Artemisia annua (DLA), the plant from which artemisinin is extracted, which had successfully cured mice of malaria. Surprisingly, all 18 patients were fully cured of malaria, including a five year old child who had been rendered comatose by the parasite. These decisive results led the scientists to conclude their report with a strong recommendation: “Successful treatment of all 18 ACT-resistant cases suggests that DLA should be rapidly incorporated into the antimalarial regimen for Africa and possibly wherever else ACT resistance has emerged.
Artemisia annua has been used in China to treat fevers and other ailments for over 1,700 years. In 2015, Dr. Youyou Tu received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for being the first person to extract artemisinin, “the biologically active component of the herb.” Since it was identified and separated from the herb, it has been studied clinically, and some treatments—including ACT—were developed from it. Now it seems the assumption that artemisinin was the only beneficial component of Artemisia annua may have been mistaken.
Doctors in the Congo decided to try Artemisia annua, an herb used in traditional Chinese medicine, and it cured 18 patients of ACT-resistant malaria.
In a Science Daily article on the report, lead scientist Dr. Pamela Weathers suggests that “the superior performance of DLA in comparison to ACT, as well as its ability to kill drug-resistant parasites and avoid the resistance trap, itself, is likely due to the synergistic effects of a complex array of phytochemicals contained in the plant’s leaves, several of which are also known to have antimalarial properties and others of which may act both to enhance the absorption of artemisinin into the bloodstream and bolster its effectiveness against malaria.”
Just because Western science hasn’t categorically identified every element of a traditional medicine and figured out how each part interacts with the others doesn’t mean that the anecdotal evidence of hundreds of years of treatment should be discarded. Traditional medicines often work, sometimes (as in this case) even better than clinically manufactured drugs. They need to be given more credibility and tested more thoroughly as legitimate treatment methods.