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UN-sponsored East African meeting on anti-malarial drug supply opens

UN-sponsored East African meeting on anti-malarial drug supply opens

With demand for a new anti-malarial treatment expected to more than double this year, The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) has convened an expert meeting in Tanzania in a bid to ensure a reliable supply of a critical drug that could prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths.

The three-day meeting will focus on the plant Artemisia annua, from which comes the key ingredient in artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs), which WHO recommends for the treatment of deadly falciparum malaria, the cause of as many as 400 million infections a year, and at least a million deaths, some 80 per cent of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

By tomorrow, participants at the meeting in Arusha – including medical experts, farmers and manufacturers – hope to have developed strategies to boost cultivation of the plant, especially in East Africa, where it grows well.

"Scaling up production of the plant presents an excellent opportunity for economic development in Africa. We are already seeing the first encouraging results here in Tanzania, which started large-scale cultivation of Artemisia annua in 2004," Dr. Jack Chow, Assistant Director-General of WHO for HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria, said.

"African farmers and their partners in research and development and industry will play a critical role in ensuring sufficient ACT supply and ultimately contribute to reductions in malaria burden," he said.

Since 2001, 51 countries, 34 of them in Africa, have adopted ACTs as the first-line treatment for malaria. The resulting surge in demand – from 2 million treatment courses in 2003 to 30 million courses in 2004 and a projected 70 million treatment courses for 2005 – led to a shortfall of artemisinin and ACTs late last year, WHO said.