LONDON (AP) _ The first affordable combination anti-malarial drug tailored for children will soon be available across Africa, potentially saving millions of lives, the nonprofit organization and the pharmaceuticals giant who worked to develop it said Thursday.
The new medication, known as ASAQ, combines two of the most effective drugs known to treat malaria, artesunate and amodiaquine.
ASAQ is the result of a $21 million, two-year project by the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative and pharmaceutical manufacturer Sanofi-Aventis. To make the drugs available where they are most needed, the new drug is not patented and will be available to anyone who wants to manufacture it.
``This drug will save lives,'' said Dr. Bernard Pecoul, executive director of the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative. ``The aim of this project was to develop a product as adapted as possible to the malaria situation in Africa.''
The drug already has been registered in Morocco, and has been authorized in 10 other African countries.
Every year there are as many as 500 million cases of malaria worldwide with more than 1 million deaths. The disease primarily affects children under 5 in sub-Saharan Africa.
If ASAQ and other drugs like it are made widely available, along with other anti-malaria weapons such as bed nets impregnated with insecticide, the number of malaria cases in Africa could be dramatically cut.
Instead of cutting two different pills intended for adults into child-appropriate sizes _ a less-then precise method _ health care workers will now be able to give children a single pill.
The drug comes in four formulations, including versions for infants and children over 13, or adults. ASAQ merges two pills into one, making it easier both to prescribe and to take. Children will need to take one tablet per day for three days.
``Having a fixed-dose combination is a significant advance,'' said Dr. Chris Hentschel, president and CEO of the Medicines for Malaria Venture. ``The fewer pills people have to take, the more chance they will actually take them.''
In addition, the problem of resistance developing should be lessened. Experts worry that when patients have multiple pills to take, they may not take all of both sets of pills, which can lead to the development of resistance. But because ASAQ combines two drugs in one, there are fewer concerns about patients taking their full doses.
ASAQ is the first of numerous malaria treatments in the drug development pipeline, which marks a new era in anti-malarials.
``We need a greater diversity of drugs to drive the prices down to affordable levels,'' said Dr. Sylvia Meek, technical director at the Malaria Consortium.
As a result of new partnerships between public and private sectors, as well as an injection of funds from organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, there is a newfound drive to develop new drugs for Africa, which has previously been seen as unprofitable.
ASAQ is cheaper than other currently available fixed-dose combinations, and will be available at-cost price to countries battling malaria, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations.
The pills cost less than 50 cents for children, and less than $1 for older children and adults. Even at these relatively low costs, however, that may still be too expensive for Africa.
``Only 5 percent of people who need anti-malaria drugs get them,'' said Dr. Nick White, a malaria expert at Mahidol University, Bangkok. ``That's pathetic and we need to do better.''
Malaria is one of the top three killer diseases in Africa. It is transmitted to people from mosquitoes and usually causes symptoms including fever, vomiting, headaches, and other flu-like symptoms. If left untreated, the disease can be fatal.