Sweet Wormwood Heals MalariaCategories
According to an article in The Times, a Chinese herb known as Qing Hao, sweet wormwood or artemisia annua L. is being grown massively to help end the reign of malaria, one of the major killer diseases in Africa, which has become resistant to our standard quinine-based drugs.
The extract made from the herb, artemisinin, has been shown to cut the death rate in those treated with it by 97%. The World Health Organisation says that it is the new gold standard for malaria treatment...
Farmers are converting entire valleys to an ancient crop that could save millions of lives
(original article here)
XU WEIFENG was nearly killed by raging fever when he was six years old. He lay on a cot in the mountain hut of his corn farmer parents, seemingly destined to become one more unknown victim of malaria, the world's second biggest killer after Aids.
"Every day the fevers started around four in the afternoon, and for the next ten hours I would not know if I was dreaming or dying," he recalled this week. Eventually a doctor gave him a concoction of local herbs and Xu quickly recovered. The remedy that cured him is known as artemisinin, and is now being hailed as a life-saver for millions of malaria victims in Africa.
Artemisinin, first mentioned in Han Dynasty medical texts 2000 years ago, looks certain to replace the present remedies whose effectiveness is fast diminishing as malaria develops resistance to quinine. Despite extensive eradication efforts using quinine derivatives over the past 50 years, malaria kills a child every 30 seconds.
The highly effective Chinese herb, known in English as sweet wormwood, is already being grown by the US Army at a secret laboratory in the state of Wisconsin for use by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the main growing region is a remote mountain range in central China, where farmers are now battling to satisfy the world's sudden demand for the fern-like weed whose medical properties have long been known to local herbalists.
The Beijing Government certified mass cultivation of artemisinin this week and the World Health Organisation (WHO) is planning to buy about 100 million doses of the drug from the Youyang region of Chongqing province by the end of 2005.
Mr Xu, now 26, is one of the local farmers converting entire valleys into shoulder-high artemisinin fields. High above the gorges of the Wu river, for as far as you can see, hillsides are covered in a sea of lush green ferns.
From their scattered huts farmers wearing straw hats follow narrow paths through their shoulder-high crops. They will begin their harvest next week and, since the drug cannot be synthesised, 600 million African malaria sufferers - 10 per cent of the world's population - are dependent on their success.
"In this region at least, there is now no more malaria," Mr Xu said.
To promote the cultivation of artemisinin the Chinese Government this year completed a new road to Youyang, cutting travel time through narrow river gorges to the nearest airport from four days to six hours.
"I guarantee we will provide enough land to grow artemisinin, no matter how great the demand of the international community," said Gong Zemin, Youyang's Communist party secretary. But in reform-minded China, party secretaries no longer have unlimited power over the economy. Local farmers need to agree to plant herbs instead of corn on their land, a switch many are reluctant to make since they do not yet trust official assurance of world demand.
Holley, a Chinese pharmaceutical company that distributes artemisinin extract, is telling them income per hectare will increase by 150 per cent.
"We hope to double the area under cultivation next year, but even that may not be enough to satisfy demand," said Nelson Tan, Holley's medical director.
The sudden switch from quinine to artemisinin started with a Lancet article in January. A group of malaria experts accused leading aid agencies of gross negligence for insisting on using drugs to which infectious agents in large parts of Africa were now resistant.
Britain's Department of International Development had rejected switching to artemisinin saying it was unproven and expensive. Critics countered that at a dollar per saved life it was hardly unaffordable for the international community. The WHO backed them up with test results that showed the drug cut the death rate by 97 per cent. At a conference at New York's Columbia University in April, the embarrassed aid agencies reversed their stance and embraced artemisinin - some at the last minute.
Dr Dennis Carroll, an advisor to the US Agency for International Development, was quoted in the conference pamphlets as critical of artemisinin. By the time the conference started, he was chairing a panel on how to induce farmers to plant more of it.
Luo Rongchang, a Chinese medical researcher, said: "The herb is a powerful de-toxicant and has no side-effects. What a shame that it has taken the international community this long to realise its effectiveness."
The commercial development of artemisinin actually began with the Vietnam War when Ho Chi-Minh asked China for help with the Vietcong's growing malaria problem in 1967. Beijing consulted ancient medical text which included mentions of "qinghao," as artemisinin is known in Chinese. A scholar called Ge Hong (281-340 AD) recommended "a handful of qinghao in two pints of water".
Clinical forms of artemisinin were introduced in the 1980s but since China has relatively few cases of malaria it attracted little international attention until the growing resistance to quinine-based drugs.
"Artemisinin will be the first Chinese herbal cure that not only complements Western medicine but actually replaces it," Mr Tan said. A cowherd leads his animal through a field of sweet wormwood or artemisinin in a valley near Chongqing in Sichuan province. Artemisinin has become a lucrative crop for Chinese farmers in the region as they rush to grow enough of the plants for use in the fight against malaria. The fern-like weed, known as a medical remedy to the Chinese for at least 2,000 years, seems set to replace other drugs whose effectiveness against malaria is diminishing. The World Health Organisation says that it is the new gold standard for malaria treatment and a spokesman for the Department for International Development said: "It‚s . . . the future of first-line treatment."