First, let’s clear up a common misconception. Mosquitoes don’t cause malaria – they only transmit the disease. Malaria is caused by an organism whose life cycle is dependent on the mosquito. When a mosquito bites a person who has malaria, it ingests a small amount of that person’s blood, which contains the malaria-causing protozoan plasmodia. The microorganism then continues its lifecycle within the gut of the mosquito. When the mosquito bites an uninfected person, the developed protozoan enters that new person through the mosquito’s saliva and a new case of malaria is born.
The severity and prognosis of malaria depends largely on the species of this microorganism that a person is infected with. The rates of treatment and cure and the progression of the disease vary greatly depending on the various species involved. While all malaria is serious, new world malarias tend to kill you less quickly, which allows more time for the disease to be diagnosed and treated. The medication primarily used to treat malaria is a form of quinine that’s derived from the bark of the quinine tree.
Currently more than 515,000,000 people around the world are infected with malaria each year. Of these, between 1,000,000 and 3,000,000 people die from the disease each year. Malaria is one of the most prevalent and underfunded diseases in the world, and is only now beginning to receive the attention of other diseases that aren’t nearly as costly in terms of human lives and suffering.
There are two ways to focus on the problem of malaria. The first is the approach used by the new world, most famously during the time of the building of the Panama Canal and Walter Reed. That approach was to “drain the swamps,” or more specifically, to eliminate the habitats where mosquitoes could live and breed.
The second approach, the one being currently used in Africa, is to treat infected patients and to work to develop a vaccine that will be effective against the disease. The geopolitical environment in Africa makes the elimination of breeding grounds a difficult and unwieldy task, which is why this alternate approach is being used.
While these are new research initiatives, the disease itself is very ancient – so much so that it has influenced human development. In fact, there are two genetically-linked diseases – sickle cell anemia and thalassaemia – whose highest prevalence is found in the same areas where the prevalence of malaria is greatest. It has been determined that the genes for these two diseases offer a certain amount of resistance to infection by malaria-causing protozoa. Both of these diseases affect the shape and protein coating of the body’s red blood cells, and make it more difficult for the protozoa to enter the red blood cells and continue their life cycle. This means that the human genetic code is actually in the process of adapting to the presence of this disease.
When you understand the crucial role that mosquitoes play in the spread of this devastating disease, controlling and eliminating mosquitoes takes on a new urgency, both in terms of the economic advantages posed by its elimination and the reduction in all-around human suffering.