Drug subsidy may be malaria's death knell

Tamar Kahn | 16 Apr 2007
Business Day (South Africa)
Malaria experts meeting in Johannesburg last week said they were well on the way to launching a global subsidy scheme to help countries hardest hit by the disease provide costly new-generation drugs called artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs) to more people.  

The initiative, which is expected to be launched by the end of the year, is being spearheaded by Roll Back Malaria, a global movement for combating the disease.  

The subsidy programme, first proposed by Nobel prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow and the US-based Institute of Medicine several years ago, offers hope that Africa can move closer to eradicating the disease. Africa bears the brunt of the world's malaria cases, and is home to 90% of the estimated 1-million deaths caused by the mosquito-borne disease each year.  

The subsidy is also expected to expand the African market for ACTs, potentially opening the way for local pharmaceutical manufacturing companies to begin making generic versions of these drugs.  

Faced with widespread resistance to older malaria treatments such as chloroquine and sulphadoxine-pyrimethamine, African nations are increasingly turning to ACTs, which contain a fast-acting derivative of the Chinese artemesia plant, and another slower-acting drug such as lumefantrine or piperaquine.  

However, ACTs are markedly more expensive than other drugs, hampering poor countries' ability to access them. ACTs can cost as much as $8 a dose, compared with just 10c for chloroquine.  

Roll Back Malaria estimated the fund would require $250m-$300m a year, and was in discussions with a number of potential donors.  

African health ministers meeting in Johannesburg last week voiced their support for the Roll Back Malaria initiative.