Malaria in plain english Vol I
Even as a young boy growing up in Nigeria, I have always been relatively fearless except when it came to two things: pissing my mother off, or suffering a bite from an anopheles mosquito. It is probably patently obvious to most people who have a close knit bond with a loving maternal figure why I avoided pissing my mom off… after all, hell hath no fury like a good mother scorned. However, the other major fear of my youth might be confusing to especially those of us who grew up in the western developed world. Let me explain myself…
My borderline paranoia of getting mosquito bites while growing up in Nigeria was because getting one from a female mosquito of the right type, put you in serious danger of contracting the ancient and potentially lethal disease known as Malaria.
Brief history of Malaria
The word Malaria originates from the medieval italian phrase “mala aria” which literally translates to “bad air”. Strange… I know, but the reason for this is because the people of the day believed that foul smelling air was the primary cause of the disease. Now before you start cracking up at how wrong these ancient folks were, you should know that they weren’t completely off the mark. The truth is malaria tends to originate in swampy marshy areas which usually smell pretty bad and considering the level of scientific awareness back then, I don’t think it was all that dumb to naively assume that foul smelling air was the primary cause of this juggernaut of a disease.
Malaria has been around for a very long time and is very pervasive in the animal kingdom. Our distant chimpanzee relatives have their own version of it, flying squirrels have their own version of it, and heck even birds have their own version of malaria. Since birds descended from dinosaurs (according to current scientific opinion), a legitimate argument could be made that maybe even the dinosaurs had their own version of malaria to contend with before the ice age wiped them out. Now although the different types of malarias don’t typically jump species, which is to say that neither of us are susceptible to catching malaria from a chimp and vice versa, the fact that this disease still exists and can cause grief to multiple groups within the animal kingdom speaks to its incredible resilience and adaptivity.
Speaking of its resilience, malaria has transcended culture and time with its remarkable ability to adapt. The earliest known recordings of the disease date back some 4000 years, and it is petrifying to contemplate the cumulative historical death toll associated with it. Malaria also doesn’t discriminate based on race, social class, or gender. Famous people of varying ethnic backgrounds throughout history such as Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, John F. Kennedy, and Mother Theresa have suffered from and even been killed by Malaria.
As scarily lethal as malaria is, can you imagine how much more scary it must have been to contend with this disease absent a clear cut cure or treatment for it? Well that’s what people who are more or less just like us had to deal with as “recently” as the 16th century (not that long ago on the timescale of evolution). I don’t know about you, but my heart goes out to all those mothers and fathers back then who must have known that once any of their children started to show the tell tale symptoms of malaria – fever, vomiting, and cold sweats – they were as good as dead. Thankfully, we have reached a state of development and collective awareness which allows us to counteract the effects of malaria, saving countless lives in the process.
Not surprisingly, the cure for malaria was discovered from the seat of all knowledge here on our planet earth… mother nature herself. The story goes something like this. The wife of the Viceroy of Peru – Countess Chinchón – had taken ill with a malaria induced fever. Determined not to lose the love of his life, the Viceroy ordered his physicians to find a cure. They eventually found that the bark of a Peruvian tree cured the Countess of her fever and restored her to full health. The tree from which the bark came was named “Cinchona” after the countess. The local people named the remedy “quina quina” which means “bark of barks” and is the source from which one of the most popular and effective anti-malarial drugs – quinine – borrows its name. By the way, quinine is still one of the most potently effective drugs used to combat malaria in the world today.
Now that you have a good feel for the history of malaria, you’re primed to have a look at the science behind this rather deadly disease. That will be the focal point of the second part of this article series so stay tuned for the next installment. From all of us here at chubaoyolu.org, please take care of yourselves and each other.
Oyolu B.C. Ph.D.
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