Orchid Mae Letter 5 - A Killer Bite

A Killer Bite 

U.S. Public Health Poster, American Red Cross Photograph Collection, Library of Congress 

Malaria is a life-threatening disease caused by Plasmodium parasites. It is transmitted to humans through the bites of infected Anopheles mosquitoes. Around the turn of the 20th century, malaria was a significant public health challenge, particularly in tropical and subtropical regions, but also in parts of Europe and North America.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the understanding of malaria underwent substantial advancements. Before this period, the disease was largely attributed to miasma or "bad air," a theory that had dominated medical thinking since ancient times. In Italian mal’aria means “bad air.” The breakthrough came with the discovery of the parasite responsible for malaria. In 1880, Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran, a French army surgeon working in Algeria, observed parasites in the blood of a patients suffering from malaria, identifying the cause of the disease. This was a monumental step in understanding the biological basis of malaria, and validating the germ theory of disease. 

Ronald Ross, Winner of Nobel Prize in Medicine 1902. Photograph. National Library of Medicine. Public Domain. 

Further significant progress was made by Sir Ronald Ross, a British medical doctor, who in 1897 demonstrated that the malaria parasite could be transmitted from infected patients to mosquitoes. Working in India, Ross dissected mosquitoes that had fed on malaria patients and found the parasite in the mosquitoes' stomachs, thereby proving the vector transmission theory. Then in 1898, Ross furthered his transmission theories by seeing if the infected mosquitoes could then infect healthy birds. Ross discovered and documented the complete life cycle of the malaria parasite and for this groundbreaking work, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1902.

The turn of the 20th century was also a period marked by the first major public health campaigns against malaria. With the new understanding of the disease's transmission, efforts were focused on controlling mosquito populations and preventing bites. This era saw the implementation of widespread environmental management measures, such as draining swamps and stagnant water bodies, where mosquitoes bred. Such measures were particularly notable in the southern United States and parts of Europe, where malaria was endemic.

In parallel, the development and use of quinine, derived from the bark of the cinchona tree, became a cornerstone of malaria treatment. Quinine had been used since the 17th century, but its application became more systematic and widespread around the turn of the 20th century. Quinine not only treated the symptoms of malaria but also helped reduce its transmission by lowering the parasite load in infected individuals.

Colonialism played a significant role in the spread and management of malaria during this period. European colonial powers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America often encountered severe malaria outbreaks, which posed significant risks to colonial administrators and settlers. This led to increased research and investment in malaria control measures within the colonies. Unfortunately, these efforts were often more focused on protecting European populations rather than addressing the disease comprehensively among the indigenous populations.

The early 20th century also witnessed the establishment of institutions dedicated to malaria research and control. The Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, founded in 1898, and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, established in 1899, became leading centers for the study and control of tropical diseases, including malaria. These institutions played crucial roles in advancing scientific knowledge and training professionals in the fight against the disease.

Despite these efforts, malaria remained a formidable public health challenge well into the 20th century. The disease's persistence highlighted the need for continued research, better treatments, and more effective control measures. The groundwork laid during this period, however, was instrumental in shaping future strategies to combat the disease, leading to further scientific breakthroughs and eventually to the development of modern antimalarial drugs and more comprehensive control programs. The period around the turn of the 20th century was a critical era in the history of malaria, marked by significant scientific discoveries and the beginning of organized public health interventions against the disease. 

Despite malaria being a preventable and treatable infectious disease, it still plagues millions in the world. In 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there were 249 million malaria cases in 85 countries, resulting in 608,000 deaths. Africa is home to 94% of those cases and 95% of those deaths. Children under the age of 5 account for 75% of all deaths. Prevention of the disease is done through avoiding mosquitos and through availability of medicines. 

Many populations which are plagued with the disease are indigenous and remote and rely on self-diagnosis, self-treatment, traditional medicines, and healers. They lack access to mosquito nets, medicines, and infrastructures that have enabled other more developed regions to eradicate the disease. Many organizations, such as the Clinton Health Access Initiative, Global Fund against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, Malaria No More, Against Malaria Foundation, and many others are working tirelessly to raise funds to work towards a world where there are no deaths from malaria and the disease can be eradicated. 

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