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Rwandan researchers discover new malaria strain

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While the resistance was identified in a laboratory experiment, the researchers say that it has not yet appeared among humans across the country.

Scientists in Rwanda have identified a new strain of the malaria parasite with potential resistance to existing medicines the country uses to treat the fatal disease.

Doctors from the Rwanda Biomedical Center (RBC), the Ministry of Health, and the World Health Organization (WHO) identified the disturbing mutant during a lab experiment.

The research paper, titled Emergence and clonal expansion of in vitro artemisinin-resistant Plasmodium falciparum kelch13 R561H mutant parasites in Rwanda, was published this week in Nature, a British weekly scientific journal.

Identified as Pfkelch13 R561H, the new breed showed “early warning signs” of resistance to one of Rwanda’s two antimalarial drugs.

Artemisinin, a core component of the bi-therapy drug against malaria used in Rwanda for the last 14 years known as Coartem did not work on the new strain, according to the research.

While the resistance was identified in a laboratory experiment, the researchers say that it has not yet appeared among humans across the country. They suspect high levels of naturally acquired immunity to be the reason.

In fact, the researchers state that resistance to the drug has not been reported in Africa to date.

However, RBC called for reinforcement in malaria prevention measures so that the parasite does not prosper. In a different case, Coartem would no longer be able to cure it.

Emergence of the artemisinin resistance (ART-R) in Rwanda, the study says, could “potentially compromise the continued success of antimalarial chemotherapy in Africa.”

Malaria represents a major public health issue in the tropics, with an estimated 228 million cases and 405,000 deaths in 2018. 

The study warns that the resistance poses an “increasing concern” and would grow into a “major public health threat.”

But they comforted that “early detection of resistance provides the best chance of minimizing its lethal impact.”

The study showed that resistance to some first-line antimalarial drugs in the 1960s might have “contributed to millions of additional malaria deaths in young African children in the 1980s.”

Drug resistance can be imported or grown locally in areas with poor disease control measures. According to the research findings, the Rwandan strain is a new local emergence.

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