Malaria is not a newcomer on the disease forefront. It was reported as far back as 4000 BC. In the 1700’s, Spanish missionaries in South America learned of a treatment for the disease they called Peruvian bark. The tree that produced this bark was named after the Peruvian countess, Cinchona, and is now known as quinine. Even today, quinine, along with artemisinin, it is one of the most effective drugs available. Artemisinin comes from the sweet wormwood plant, found to be effective for treatment of this disease by Chinese herbalists as early as 340 BC.
Still, even today, public health experts consider it to be one of the most serious and severe mosquito borne diseases. About 700,000 to 2,700,000 people die each year from it. While most of the fatalities are in Africa, the disease is a world wide problem. Most cases involve bites from one of the Anophelese species. To date, malaria is the leading cause of death and disease, world wide. In the United States, where it is considered to have been eradicated, more than 1300 cases were reported in 2002, of which 8 resulted in fatalities. Most of the cases came from bites acquired in other countries, but since 1957, after eradication was considered complete, there have been 63 outbreaks of malaria from domestic transmission.
Consider this, about 41% of the world’s population lives in areas where it is actively transmitted. And, consider that geographic isolation is no longer feasible, and you get an idea of the danger malaria presents to the human community, planet wide. And, more frightening, these numbers are probably lower than the reality of the situation. Most deaths from malaria occur in Africa, where patients have no access to adequate medical care and die at home. In this instance, under reporting is a real issue. One reason that malaria has been mostly eliminated in the United States and Europe is simply a matter of climate. In areas where freezes occur, the mosquitoes die out. Most of the areas of significant malaria outbreaks are in tropical climates.
The cycle of transmission follow a set pattern. A mosquito bites an infected host and ingests malaria parasites. While the mosquito is unharmed by the parasites, they thrive in the body of the mosquito, and then migrate back to the mosquito’s salivary glands. Once the mosquito bites again, the parasites are injected into the victim. First, the parasites migrate to the host’s liver, where they incubate for about 7-30 days. This is the incubation period and the victim has no symptoms. Then, the parasites enter the bloodstream and infect the red blood cells, causing them to burst. This causes the classic symptoms of malaria.
First, the victim feels cold and often shivers. This is followed by fever, headaches, and vomiting. In young children, seizures can also occur. Last, the victim begins sweating, and normal temperatures resume. Depending on which parasite is involved, the victim will experience these attacks every second day or in three day intervals.
The red blood rupture is what ultimately causes fatality. Particularly in children, insurmountable anemia results.
And, of course, if the victim is bitten by another mosquito, the parasite goes on to find a new host, which spreads the disease.
The World Health Organization has attempted to launch efforts to eradicate the disease, but lack of funding and manpower has forced it to focus on control.
For now, the best course would appear to be what is true for all mosquito borne diseases: get rid of the vector. Mosquito eradication and avoiding bites is far better than trying to combat the diseases they cause.