Artemisinin is a frontline drug in the fight against malaria. It kills Plasmodium parasites that cause malaria. Artemisinin is derived from a plant called sweet wormwood, Artemisia annua in Latin, or qinghao in Chinese.
In 1970s, researcher Tu Youyou and her team, spotted references to a fever-easing plant in ancient Chinese medical texts and sought to extract the active ingredient to combat malaria. From the 1990s, artemisinin gradually took on a frontline role, replacing previous generations of malaria medicines that had lost their effectiveness as the parasites became resistant to them.
Teresa Tiffert, a malaria researcher at Cambridge University, said, "The drug acts fast initially to attack the parasite, but is used in conjunction with longer-lasting medicines to destroy the holdouts."
Artemisinin greatly increased the odds of survival for people hit with the most stubborn strains of malaria.
The malaria parasite has an ability to mutate, causing it to build resistance to treatments when they are prescribed or used incorrectly. Previously used chloroquine was replaced by sulphadoxine-pyrimethamine (SP), which itself lost its parasite-killing powers and was followed by artemisinin.
In February 2015, researchers said, "We have observed malaria strains showing resistance to artemisinin in Myanmar. This could spread westward to Bangladesh and India, even beyond."
Doctors suggest that in Africa, where malaria claims most of its victims, some artemisinin-based therapies are no longer working as well as they used to. At a WHO meeting in 2015, health experts will weigh recommendations to beef up the combination therapy, perhaps by increasing doses of the drug or the duration of treatment.