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DEVELOPMENT REPORT – UN Supports Chinese Herbal Drug in Fight Against Malaria - 2004-05-16

Broadcast: May 17, 2004

This is Robert Cohen with the VOA Special English Development Report.

The United Nations has decided to support a traditional Chinese medicine as a way to fight malaria. The drug is called artemisinin. It comes from a plant called the sweet wormwood.

Chinese researchers discovered artemisinin more than thirty years ago. Tests took place in the early nineteen-nineties in Vietnam. The country had a malaria crisis at that time. The drug helped reduce the rate of deaths by ninety-seven percent.

Now, world health agencies are trying to secure one-hundred-million treatments of artemisinin. In addition, the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has given money to eleven countries to buy the drug. It has also told thirty-four other nations to cancel their requests for two older drugs. Instead, those nations have been told to order the new drug.

Malaria is caused by parasites. These organisms are passed to humans through a bite from a mosquito. Malaria produces high temperatures and causes the body to lose dangerous amounts of fluid.

The World Health Organization estimates that each year about three-million people become infected with malaria. About one-million of them die. Malaria is especially dangerous to children and pregnant women.

Hundreds of years ago, people in what is now Peru treated the disease with the bark covering the cinchona tree. Two French researchers in eighteen-twenty identified the active substance in the bark as quinine. This became the main drug used to prevent and cure some forms of malaria.

Today, mostly manufactured drugs are used to prevent the parasites from developing in the body. The most common ones are chloroquine and mefloquine. Both must be taken once a week. Another drug is doxycycline. It must be taken every day.

But treating malaria is difficult. The parasites can develop a resistance to drugs. Health experts hope to prevent this in the case of artemisinin by giving it in combination with other medicines.

Experts also warn about the overuse of malaria drugs by people who do not have the disease. They say that sick people often mistake influenza or other diseases for malaria and take anti-malarial medicine. Health experts say greater use of home tests for malaria could reduce the problem.

This VOA Special English Development Report was written by Jill Moss. This is Robert Cohen.