The shrub, Artemisia annua, or Chinese wormwood, first became a part of Chinese medical knowledge more than 1,600 years ago, and has long been an effective way for humans to fight the infectious and fatal disease.
The impact of contracting malaria is wide-ranging, from flu-like symptoms to, in some cases, death. Pregnant women and children are especially susceptible. It is estimated that more than 1 million people die each year from malaria and 300-500 million become ill from contracting it. There is no vaccine for it.
Artemisinin was, for about 150 years, supplanted by quinine as the top choice for fighting malaria. Quinine comes from the South African cinchona tree.
Recently, a large study of malaria compared the effectiveness of quinine and artemisinin to fight malaria. Doctors from four countries – India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Myanmar – conducted a study of more than 2,000 patients with severe malaria, splitting them so some received quinine and others received artemisinin. The study, which ran from June 2003 to May 2005, had to be stopped because the number of people dying while fighting the disease with quinine was much higher than those given artemisinin.
The study helped confirm that artemisinin is the best cure for the disease. Since the early 2000s, artemisinin became the top choice among the medical community.
The World Health Organization recommends using artemisinin in combination with other medicines to discourage the malaria virus from quickly becoming resistant to the plant's medicinal qualities.
Malaria strikes the most in tropical regions and sub-Saharan Africa, the latter of which represents 90 percent of all malaria deaths. It is spread primarily by insects.