Top 10 Ways Malaria Changed the World

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Malaria is one of the oldest known diseases. There are records of the Ancient Egyptians dealing with similar symptoms over 3,500 years ago. The parasite wasn’t discovered until 1880, and in 1897, it was discovered that mosquitoes are responsible for passing the parasite.

While malaria can be cured and has been eradicated in some countries, like the United States, it kills 660,000 people every year and 200 million more are affected. As of early 2016, nearly half of the world’s population is at risk of catching it.

Malaria starts off with flu-like symptoms about two weeks to a month after being bitten. If it goes untreated, malaria can lead to death which is caused by brain damage or organ damage. In Nature magazine, an expert estimates that the death toll of malaria is as high as half of all people who have ever lived.

Because malaria has been around so long and the fact that anyone can be infected by it means it has had a huge effect on some of the biggest events in history.

10. The Extinction of the Dinosaurs

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About 66 million years ago, a mass extinction, known as the KT extinction, wiped out about 80 percent of life on Earth; notably it killed off the dinosaurs. There is a lot of debate as to what caused the extinction, but what scientists do know is that around the time of the extinction, there was a large impact event and there is evidence of major volcanic action on Earth, which has led researchers to believe that either one, or both, were responsible for the mass die off.

Another possible cause, or at least a contributor, was disease, specifically malaria. Researchers at the University of Oregon discovered an ancient relative of malaria inside an insect called a biting midge which was trapped in amber about 100 million years ago. It is the oldest known strain of malaria and it is believed that reptiles, such as the dinosaurs, would have been affected by this ancient strain. The researchers believe that malaria would have had a profound effect on the dinosaurs and animal life in general. So while it may not have been the cause of the mass extinction, researchers believe that malaria very well could have been a major contributing factor in one of the largest mass extinctions in history.

9. Fall of the Western Roman Empire

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In 476 A.D. the Western Roman Empire had come to an end. The fall, which is thought to have started around 184 A.D., after the death of Marcus Aurelius, was a gradual decline, but there is much debate as to what the death blow was. One theory of what at least contributed to the downfall, which is backed up by DNA evidence, is a malaria outbreak.

In 2001, researchers did a DNA test on bones from about 450 A.D., just before the civilization had ended, and the test showed that the person was sick with malaria, which means the illness would have been in the area at the time. This correlates with the theory that a major epidemic struck the citizens of the Western Roman Empire, which either caused the civilization to come to an end, or at the very least, ensured that it happened.

8. Slavery in the American South

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On the surface, this may sound like a terrible question, but why were Africans used as slaves in the American South? It was a bit of a logistical nightmare because Africa is across the ocean and the trips between America and Africa were very dangerous and not exactly efficient.

Well, one possible reason is the spread of malaria. When people were brought from Africa to the American colonies in August 1619, they also brought malaria with them. In the South, where it is warmer and damper, which allows mosquitoes to flourish, the rates of malaria skyrocketed among the Europeans and the Native Americans because they had never encountered the disease before. Africans, on the other hand, had built up a resistance to it, so they could work in mosquito infested areas without getting sick. It is believed that this resistance helped cement the system of slavery in the South that lasted for almost two and half centuries and the effects of it are still felt in society today.

7. The Formation of Great Britain

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In 1698, Scotland was looking to stake a claim for themselves in the New World. At the time, the country was in terrible shape. People were starving in the streets because of decades of war and they had just endured a seven-year famine. Their solution to their societal woes was to set up a trading company and colony on the Isthmus of Panama called Damien. In the fall of 1698, 1,700 settlers left Scotland, and on the voyage, they only lost 70 people.

In spring 1698, heavy rains increased the mosquito population in Damien, which led to many people getting very sick from malaria. By March, 200 people had died and then it got to be so bad that 10 people a day were dying. Out of the 1,700 people who set off from Scotland, less than 300 people returned. A second expedition was launched in August 1699, but like its predecessor, it was a disaster. Only a handful of people made it back this time.

The failed expeditions were complete and utter failures for the Scots. Besides losing thousands of lives, they also lost £232,884, which was mostly people’s savings. It was also a drastic morale blow to the nation. As a result, Scotland agreed to sign the Acts of Union 1707, which made Scotland a member of Great Britain. As part of the agreement, England agreed to pay off Scotland’s debt, most of which stemmed from the failed expeditions to Damien.

6. Revolutionary War

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Europeans who settled in South Carolina developed rice plantations, which were havens for mosquitoes. A visitor to the area at the time said that the malaria was so bad that “Carolina in the spring is a paradise, in the summer a hell and in the autumn a hospital.” Especially hard hit were young people who died in droves. As a result, many people who grew up in the South, like the Carolinas, and survived childhood were resistant to the disease as adults.

During the American Revolutionary War, in 1779, the British decided to do a Southern invasion of the Colonies and it was led by British General Charles Cornwallis. He was successful at first, but in the summer and fall of 1780 they were hit hard by malaria. Eventually, they were forced to flee the Carolinas to, “… preserve the troops from the fatal sickness, which so nearly ruined the Army last autumn.” The British and German soldiers simply didn’t have the resistance to the disease because they didn’t grow up with it like the American troops.

In midsummer 1881, Cornwallis and 8,000 troops settled in Yorktown, Virginia, which was ripe with mosquitoes. In September, French and American soldiers besieged Yorktown and Cornwallis surrendered after three weeks because his men were too sick.

The surrender at Yorktown essentially ended land battles in the American colonies, although there were still battles at sea. In 1782, peace negotiations began and the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783, which ended the eight year war and granted America its independence.

5. The Civil War

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As we mentioned in the prior entry on the Revolutionary War, people who grew up in the South were generally more exposed to malaria and if they survived childhood that usually meant that they had built up a resistance to it. This resistance also played a large part in another war that defined America – the Civil War.

It is believed that the American Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865, was prolonged because of malaria. The North, which had twice as many troops as the South, couldn’t always fight as well in the South in the summer and fall because people who grew up in the Northern states simply hadn’t built up the resistance to malaria. Also, troops in the South would know more about the disease and how to deal with it, whereas someone who grew up in a place like New York may have never contracted it, wouldn’t know how to deal with it. By having healthier troops, the South was able to prolong the war despite being vastly outnumbered.

4. European Colonization of Africa

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One of the early treatments for malaria was a substance called quinine. Quinine comes from the bark of cinchona trees and the first documented case of its use to treat someone for malaria was in Peru in 1630. After Europeans colonized South America, they shipped quinine back to Europe. With this treatment, it allowed Europeans to colonize Africa, an area with high levels of malaria, starting in the 1870s. By 1900, the European conquest of the continent was complete and over 10 million Africans were killed in the process. Many European countries would hold onto these colonies until after the Second World War.

Colonization had a massive impact on Africans, to say the least. Their culture and societies were essentially bulldozed and decolonization led to bloody civil wars and genocides. Today, the effects of colonization are still deeply felt on the continent.

3. The Pacific War

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In World War II, one of the biggest problems facing American troops fighting in the South Pacific was malaria. To combat this, “The Malaria Project” was started to test treatments and possible cures. According to the aptly titled book, The Malaria Project, tens of thousands of unsuspecting mental patients were infected with malaria for research purposes. Of these patients, about 10 percent of them died and all of them had an increased chance of catching malaria again.

As a result of the Malaria Project and their horrifying experiments, the American troops were healthier than the Japanese troops, and this was definitely an asset because they had more healthy soldiers and it relieved pressure on the medical teams.

2. Origin of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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Founded in 1946, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the leading American public health organization and their main focus is researching disease control and prevention.

The roots of the CDC are found in World War II, when the American government was conducting malaria research. After the War, the United States government decided to continue malaria research and one of the main offices was in Atlanta. In 1946, the malaria research group became the CDC and they began an aggressive war to wipe out malaria in America, which led to…

1. Widespread Use of DDT

Collection of pesticides, including DDT, that were still in use by some farmers in the 1970's. Photo was taken at a Kansas farm in 1976.

In 1939, Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Müller discovered that dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known as DDT, is a very effective insecticide. In World War II, the American Army used DDT to kill mosquitoes, because if there were no mosquitoes, then that would eliminate the chance of getting malaria. After World War II, the use of DDT became more widespread across the world as a way to try and eradicate malaria. In theory, this was a good idea; DDT was responsible for eradicating malaria from America in just four years. In 1946, there were 400,000 cases of malaria in the US, and by 1950, there were almost none.

The problem was that DDT is considered moderately toxic and food for human consumption was often sprayed with DDT. This had negative effects on the environment, wildlife, and humans. For example, DDT poisoned the soil, which affects any food that is grown on it. Even though DDT was banned over 40 years ago, there are still traces of it in soil. As for wildlife, it thinned the shell of birds’ eggs, which led to lower birth rates in avian life. Finally, in humans the effects are unknown, but tests on animals have shown that it causes problems for the liver and reproductive organs. It may also be a carcinogen, which may be an agent that causes cancer.

DDT was banned in America in 1972, but it is still used as a way to deal with malaria in places like Asia, South America, and Africa.

Robert Grimminck is a Canadian freelance writer. You can friend him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, follow him on Pinterest or visit his website.


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