We talk a lot about evolution and how so many prehistoric features can still be seen today. But evolution is more than just our opposable thumbs: it also includes the life cycles of many viruses, parasites and bacteria that are not particularly friendly toward us. Malaria is one such prehistoric disease, which plagued us for centuries until we found a way to cure and prevent it.
On World Malaria Day, which falls on April 25, let’s learn the story of malaria and how it was eradicated.
Malaria, or malarial parasites, can be traced back to Africa anywhere between 2.5 million to 30 million years ago. There is evidence that shows the ancient Egyptians battled it — including pharaoh Tutankhamen — and so did the ancient Greeks and Romans. In fact, the Romans had it the worst, thanks to evolving practices like agriculture, deforestation, and practices like slavery. Many believe that when people from Africa and Asia were enslaved and brought to European countries, often in terribly unhygienic conditions, diseases like malaria also came with them. Even Alexander the Great, who died in 323 BCE, was supposedly killed by the parasitic disease.
Malaria was also associated with bodies of water, specifically stagnant water, even back then. But the discovery that it was an actual parasite and not the water that was causing the disease only came in the early 1900s.
As modern medicine against malaria was only developed in the 20th century, people had to make do with natural cures before that. One of the earliest cures was the bark of the cinchona tree from Peru, which was introduced to Europe in the 1630s. Once doctors identified quinine — the ingredient that fought malaria — the bark and the consequent medicine became much more popular.
The world didn’t see another effective cure or preventive measure since the cinchona bark until 1880, when Alphone Laverna, a French military physician, discovered the parasite responsible for hosting malaria in humans. Laverna would go on to win the Nobel Prize for his discovery, which led other scientists to further narrow down their search for what was helping the parasite get into the human body.
Surely enough, in 1897, British bacteriologist Ronald Ross in Secunderabad, India, discovered malarial parasites of birds in the stomach of a culex mosquito. At almost the same time, in 1898, Italian scientist Giovanni Grassi and his team found the malarial parasite of humans in the anopheles mosquito. Both discoveries were groundbreaking but led to one of the most heated arguments in the scientific community as to whose discovery was more important and first. It ended with Ross winning the Nobel Prize in 1902.
In the 1950s, the World Health Organization started a rigorous worldwide campaign to eradicate malaria by killing the mosquitos responsible for it. This strategy was effective in eradicating malaria in Europe, America and Australia and helped bring down the number of cases in countries like India. However, in the next decade, the world saw the rise of drug-resistant parasites, which brought us back to square one.
There were fresh efforts to curb the disease in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with newly funded programmes looking to develop a vaccine and help develop stronger cures. As the number of malaria cases started reducing drastically, scientists were reassured that the new medicines and therapies were working.
The first malaria vaccine was released in 2021, after years of development. This will now help countries like India, which still sees about 15 million cases annually, join other countries in being malaria-free soon.
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