A new study says a different malaria drug could save tens of thousands of adult lives every year, especially in Asia.
A study reported in this week's edition of The Lancet said that artesunate is better at saving lives than the standard medication, quinine. It said artesunate reduces the chance of death from malaria by 35 percent.
Artesunate is derived from a traditional herb that has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years to treat fever. It works more quickly, is easier to use and has fewer side effects. But it has been unclear whether it was any better at preventing death.
In the study, a team led by Dr. Nick White at Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand, compared the two drugs in 1,461 adults with severe malaria who are being treated at hospitals in Bangladesh, Indonesia, India and Myanmar.
Half the patients were given intravenous artesunate, while the others were treated with quinine.
The researchers found that 22 percent of the patients on quinine died from their malaria, but only 15 percent of the patients getting artesunate died.
The World Health Organization said the findings will prompt a change in its guidelines on the treatment of adults with severe malaria in areas like Southeast Asia and South America, locations where the parasite has shown resistance to quinine.
In such locations, switching to artesunate could save the lives of tens of thousands of the estimated 1 million people who die from malaria every year.
However, most of the world's malaria deaths occur in Africa, where it is mostly children who are affected. Whether artesunate would be better than quinine in that situation remains unclear.
The disease progresses differently in children and the drug may work differently in them, so until studies prove artesunate is better than quinine in children, the old drug will remain the treatment of choice for children suffering from malaria.
Quinine is cheaper and more easily available, and without proof of substantial superiority of artesunate, it is likely that quinine will remain the drug of choice for treating severe malaria in Africa for some time.