WHO to Support Production of Indigenous Anti-malarial Medicine in Africa

Brazzaville, 25 April 2003 -- The World Health Organization (WHO) is to provide technical support for the development and commercial production of dihydro-artemisinin, a plant-based anti-malarial medicine reputed to have the highest cure rate for the disease, the WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr E.M. Samba, has said. 
The medicine is extracted from Artemisia annua, a Chinese medicinal plant which also flourishes in Tanzania, and grown in commercial quantities in the country's Southern and Northern highlands.

"This year, WHO plans to provide the government of Tanzania with the process technology for the local production of the medicine" Dr Samba, affirmed at a press interview in the Congolese capital. "We will also provide the country with pure dihydroartemisin to serve as reference substances so as to guarantee the quality of local production. The third element of our support will be provision of technical monitoring to ensure the development of the requisite process technology locally."

Dr Samba added that WHO would also encourage the government of Tanzania to increase the quantity of commercial cultivation and conservation of Artemisia Annua in order to ensure sustainable raw materials.

WHO's support to Tanzania is being facilitated by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) which is funding a five-year 10.5 million Canadian Dollar (US$6.5 million) project strengthening traditional health systems for malaria control and prevention in the WHO African Region.

Experts from the WHO Regional Office for Africa (WHO/AFRO) on a recent field visit to Tanzania reported that the indigenous variety of Artemenia annua in Tanzania was 10 to 15 times more potent than the varieties found in China and Thailand, making commercial production of the medicine in Tanzania a viable commercial proposition.

Presently, Artemisia annua grown in Tanzania is exported to Europe where it is processed into antimalarial medicine which are subsequently imported by African countries and sold for US$6-7 per dose, far beyond the reach of most people who need them.

A feasibility study conducted by Tanzania's National Institute for Medical Research shows that dihydro-artemisinin, if produced locally, could be sold for an affordable US$2 per dose in Tanzania and other parts of Africa.

"We are certainly excited by the prospects (of the commercial production and marketing in Africa) of this medicine because it will be more affordable by those who need it the most", Dr E.M Samba said.

In addition to affordability, the artemisinins, when combined with another efficacious antimalarial medicines, need to be taken for only three days compared to week-long treatments for other medicines. Furthermore, WHO experts say, dihydro-artemisinin is the only know anti-malarial medicine to which Plasmodium falciparum species, the deadly malaria parasite, has not yet developed resistance.

Resistance to available anti-malarial drugs has become a growing threat to efforts to control malaria in Africa. Barely 15 years ago, chloroquine was a cheap, widely available and highly effective medicine against the illness. Today, one in two cases of malaria in East and Central Africa cannot be treated effectively with chloroquine because of resistance to this medicine.

Malaria kills more than one million people worldwide every year. Of these, 90 per cent are in Africa. Most of those killed on the continent are children. One out of every five African children dies from malaria before the age of five.

Among other activities currently being undertaken by WHO/AFRO within the framework of the CIDA-funded project are the evaluation of other potential herbal antimalarial medicines in three Member States. These evaluations are expected to reach the level comparative clinical trials shortly.

Additional activities within the CIDA-WHO/AFRO cooperation framework include the development of tools for institutionalizing traditional medicine in health systems. Among such tools are guidelines to assist Member States establish or review regulations for traditional medicines and practice, and training modules for traditional health practitioners.

WHO/AFRO will also produce model protocols aimed at enhancing the quality of interventions at the community level by traditional health practitioners as well as conventional medical practitioners in the diagnosis, management, prevention and control of some of the priority diseases in the African Region.

For further information, please contact: 
 Dr Rufaro Chatora 
Director, Division of Health Systems and Services Development 
World Health Organization - Regional Office for Africa
P.O. Box 6 Brazzville, Congo. 
E-mail: chatorar [at] afro.who.int 

Samuel T. Ajibola
Public Information and Communication Unit
Tel: 47 241  39378
Fax : + 47 241 39513 
World Health Organization - Regional Office for Africa 
P.O. Box 6, Brazzaville, Congo