Friday, November 06, 2009

A Chinese way to fight malaria, with friends

A plant that is found in China is being used by it's government in diplomacy with the African continent. A wormwood shrub that is prevalent in Asia contains artemisinin, one of the drugs used to fight malaria. The Chinese government ships artemisinin to countries that it has diplomatic relationships with. However, the Chinese are reluctant to teach Africans how to grow the shrub on their own.

From Reuters, reporter Tan Ee Lyn explains how this health issue becomes international diplomacy instead.

China hopes to improve and use the drug as a uniquely Chinese weapon to fight malaria not on its own soil, where the deadly disease has been sharply pruned back, but in Africa, where it still kills one child every 30 seconds.

Already, a Chinese-backed eradication programme on a small island off Africa has proven a huge success.

Away from its practical application, scientists back in the lab in Guangzhou are also achieving results. In one of the lab's refrigerators sit a dozen triangular test-tubes holding seedlings of the sweet wormwood shrub, also called Artemisia annua, which has only been found in the wild in China, Vietnam and border areas in Myanmar.

"There are about 0.6 parts of artemisinin in every 100 parts of the plant in the wild, but we have managed to increase the artemisinin content to between 1.2 and 1.8," said Feng Liling, assistant professor at the Tropical Medicine Institute in Guangzhou University of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

China pledged to help Africa fight malaria at the triennial Forum on China and Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2006 and has since set up 30 anti-malaria and prevention units. The next FOCAC meeting is in Egypt on November 8-9.

Helping developing countries eradicate malaria will help China project its influence and prestige as a global power, said politics professor Joseph Cheng at City University in Hong Kong.

Tanzania, Kenya and Nigeria have begun farming hybrids of the sweet wormwood shrub with Chinese and Vietnamese ancestry, said Li Guoqiao at the Tropical Medicine Institute.

"I inspected the plantations and the plants are growing well," Li told Reuters in an interview.

Asked if China would export the high-yielding Artemisia annua to Africa, Li said: "We want to grow them in China and whatever we export depends on bilateral relationships."

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