A central drug bank should be set up to treat rare diseases, according to a lawmaker who is also an expert on infectious diseases. Lo Wing-lok, who represents the medical sector, believes such a 'war chest' would save lives and give peace of mind to travellers in disease-prone countries in the region. Drugs for diseases that are rare in Hong Kong often have to be imported from countries such as Singapore, Australia or the United States under special authority. Some supplies are kept by larger government hospitals but the present system is inadequate, Dr Lo said. Pharmaceutical companies consider Hong Kong too small a market to keep drugs for diseases such as severe cases of malaria or African sleeping sickness. Dr Lo said about one death from sleeping sickness was reported every 20 years, while there was a fatal case of malaria every two or three years. But two people - a Hong Kong resident and a Japanese tourist - died of malaria last month. Malaria has not been prevalent in Hong Kong for many years, but it is a severe problem in some parts of Southeast Asia and Africa. In Asia, the strains most virulent - and increasingly resistant to commonly used drugs - are on Thailand's borders with Cambodia and Myanmar and in southern Vietnam. Worldwide, it infects about 400 million people a year and kills three million. A total of 421 known deaths were reported last year in Cambodia, the worst-affected country in the region. Artesunate, a herb-based malaria drug developed in China in the 1980s and now widely accepted as a treatment for tackling strains resistant to commonly used medication, is not available in Hong Kong. 'There is no commercial value for such drugs in Hong Kong,' Dr Lo said. 'There isn't enough demand to support the marketing, licensing and so forth. To solve this problem, professional bodies or the Government should set up a small drug chest.'