Scientists have expressed alarm at the rapid spread of super malaria in Southeast Asia, describing it as “an alarming global threat”.
Studies have shown that the dangerous form of malaria parasite cannot be treated with the main anti-malaria drugs.
The super malaria first emerged in Cambodia but has since spread to Thailand, Laos and now southern Vietnam.
Professor Arjen Dondorp, the head of the Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Bangkok, told BBC News: “We think it is a serious threat. It is alarming that this strain is spreading so quickly through the whole region and we fear it can spread further and eventually jump to Africa.”
In a letter to The Lancet Infectious Diseases, the researchers detail the “recent sinister development” of the parasite becoming resistant to the drug artemisinin.
About 212 million people are infected with malaria each year. It is caused by a parasite that is spread by mosquitoes and is a major killer of children.
The first choice treatment for malaria is artemisinin in combination with piperaquine.
But as artemisinin has become less effective, the super malaria parasite has now evolved to resist piperaquine too.
There have now been “alarming rates of failure”, the letter warned.
Professor Dondorp said the treatment was failing about a third of the time in Vietnam while in some regions of Cambodia the failure rate was closer to 60 per cent.
Super malaria fear for Africa
Resistance to the drugs would be catastrophic in Africa, which accounts for more than 90 per cent of all malaria cases.
Professor Dondorp said there was now an urgent push to entirely eliminate malaria in the Greater Mekong sub-region.
“It’s a race against the clock,” he said. “We have to eliminate it before malaria becomes untreatable again and we see a lot of deaths.
“If I’m honest, I’m quite worried.”
Michael Chew, of the Wellcome Trust medical research charity, said: “The spread of this malaria ‘superbug’ strain, resistant to the most effective drug we have, is alarming and has major implications for public health globally.
“Around 700,000 people a year die from drug-resistant infections, including malaria.
“If nothing is done, this could increase to millions of people every year by 2050.”