* Up to 6 million malaria cases in babies could be stopped
* Regular drug bursts hit harder than continuous treatment
* Method is cheap, safe and deliverable, researchers say
LONDON, Sept 17 (Reuters) - A third of malaria cases in African babies can be prevented by giving them regular doses of antimalarial drugs even before the children are infected, researchers said on Thursday.
Research into intermittent preventive treatment of malaria in infants (IPTi) found it helped children build better immunity to the disease and reduced the risk of the parasite becoming drug-resistant.
Both of these benefits decrease if treatment is given continuously as a prophylaxis, according to the research, published in The Lancet medical journal.
Pedro Alonso from the University of Barcelona, who led a study using data from 8,000 children and infants in Tanzania, Mozambique, Gabon and Ghana, said the research showed IPTi with the medicine sulphadoxine-pyrimethamine (SP) could save "tens of thousands of lives every year across Africa".
If IPTi using SP were expanded to other African countries, 6 million cases of malaria could be prevented each year in those most vulnerable to the disease, he told a London teleconference.
"International policy-makers and heads of national malaria control programmes should consider its immediate adoption and integration into existing programmes," he said.
Malaria is one of the world's most demanding public health problems. It kills around 1 million people a year and of an estimated 247 million cases of malaria in 2006, 86 percent were in Africa.
NO MAGIC BULLETS
Alonso said IPTi was "not a magic bullet" against malaria, and he and his colleagues also noted that resistance to sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine, which has been around for 30 years, has spread to many regions of Africa, which could limit the effectiveness of the IPTi using this drug
Alonso said SP costs between 13 and 23 U.S. cents per dose and could be delivered to infants when they attend clinics for routine immunisations.
In April this year British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline Plc started final-stage clinical trials of its malaria vaccine, Mosquirix, in the largest medical experiment ever conducted in Africa involving 16,000 children.
Alonso said while excited by the prospect of the vaccine, immunisation would not offer a complete solution.
"Controlling malaria is not about using one tool or another," he said. "It is about using all the tools that we have now, and new tools that we can develop, to reduce the intolerable burden of this disease."
David Schellenberg of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said insecticide-treated mosquito nets were a mainstay of prevention.
Separately, the U.S. Academy for Educational Development reported on Thursday that a 10-year-long U.S. government funded mosquito net project in Africa had helped deliver 50 million bed nets to people in seven countries for free or at partial cost.
The project had also created enough incentives for private companies to decide to invest $88 million to expand their mosquito net businesses, the report said.
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