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What is an Antimalarial Drug?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated Jan 24, 2024
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An antimalarial drug is a drug used either to prevent or to cure malaria. They are one of the more important classes of drugs in the world, as malaria is a severe and deadly disease that is rampant throughout much of the world. The most famous, and oldest, antimalarial drug is quinine, but there are many others on the market today, and the field of antimalarial drug development is an active and lucrative one. In recent years, some concern has developed over a growing resistance in strains of malaria to many drugs, and this is an area being addressed as strongly as possible.

Malaria is a brutal disease, responsible for between one and three million deaths each year, out of some 515 million cases. Of these, the vast majority occur in sub-Saharan Africa, and a large number of the deaths are in children. The problem of malaria in poverty-stricken regions is a serious one, and many groups focus exclusively on this problem, pushing for better antimalarial drugs, and a cheaper, more effective antimalarial drug that can be made widely available to some of the most impoverished people on earth.

Currently, no antimalarial drug is an actual antimalarial vaccine, so they all have either a short period of preventative effect, or else are meant to treat cases of infection. A great deal of work is taking place to create a vaccine, however, and there are a number of promising leads currently being pursued. A vaccine is seen as particularly important for malaria, since in spite of education and preventative measures, the rate of infection continues to grow. At the same time, strains of malaria are growing that are more and more resistant to drugs, creating a fear that eventually current drugs will be largely powerless to help. Vaccines traditionally have heralded drastic reductions in deaths related to diseases, and are largely impervious to resistance mutations.

There are two basic classes of antimalarial drug: prophylactic drugs, and therapy drugs. Prophylactic drugs attempt to set up barriers so that even if a vector for malaria, generally an infected mosquito, puts a person at risk, they will not contract the disease. Therapy drugs, on the other hand, are meant to people who have already contracted malaria, and need to survive it and try to put it into remission. Some compounds act both as a prophylactic antimalarial drug, and as a therapy drug.

Some common types of antimalarial drugs include: quinine, which has been used to treat malaria since at least the 17th century; chloroquinine, which is the cheapest antimalarial drug, and was until recently the drug most used; amodiaquine, often used with chloroquinine, but sometimes alone; mefloquine, which was designed to work against a drug resistant variant of malaria in the 1960s; and a wide range of other drugs. Also in increasingly wide usage against the drug resistant strain of malaria, P. falciparum, is the Chinese herb Artemesinin, derived from the Artemesia plant.

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