The situation has prompted an international group of researchers to urge national and international authorities to combat the problem with stringent regulations, law enforcement and the provision of inexpensive medicines to undercut the counterfeiters. Based on their own research and other scientists' studies, they outline the problem and make recommendations for addressing it in a paper to be published June 13 in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS Medicine. The researchers' work was funded by the Wellcome Trust of Great Britain and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
"The manufacture and distribution of counterfeit drugs, including anti-malarials, is a massive international problem, and few agencies are investigating it," said Facundo Fernandez, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Georgia Tech and an author on the paper. His close collaborators include scientists Paul Newton from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and Michael Green from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Malaria is a widespread international problem, primarily in poor and developing countries in the tropics though some cases have been reported in Florida in the United States. The disease -- transmitted by mosquitoes infected with the parasite Plasmodium falciparum -- infects 300 to 500 million people a year. Each year, about 1.5 million of those mostly children die even though genuine anti-malarial drugs are quite effective. One of the most efficacious drugs is artesunate derived from the Artemisia annua plant native to China.