Malaria is one of the most ancient infections known to man. It was noted in the writings of Hippocrates in the 5th century BC. It is not known exactly when malaria first made its appearance in the Americas, but some scholars suggest it is highly probable that it was a post-Columbian importation. Some rather severe epidemics were noted as early as 1493.
The word “malaria” is thought to be derived from the Italian words mala aria, meaning “bad air.” Clinically, malaria is characterized by periodic paroxysms (chills and fever), and a tendency to assume a chronic form with frequent relapses.
Interestingly, an effective treatment for malaria was found long before the cause of the disease was understood. Historical records indicate the Countess of Chinchon, suffering from chills and fever, was treated in the 1630s with an infusion derived from the bark of a Peruvian tree – a treatment Jesuit missionaries were thought to have learned from native Peruvians. They named the tree chinchona, after the Countess; and after 1700 its most active ingredient, quinine, was widely used to treat malaria.
The person credited with first identifying and describing the malaria parasite as a cause of the disease was Alphonse Laveran, a French physician working at a military hospital in Algeria in 1880. Various people had speculated that malaria was spread by mosquitoes. In early 1898, Sir Roland Ross, a British physician living in India, described the entire development of the parasite in the mosquito. That same year, an Italian investigative team headed by Amico Bignami described the full development of malaria in man and noted that malaria was transmitted only by anopheline mosquitoes.
Malaria can also be transmitted unnaturally by common use of a hypodermic needle, as among drug addicts, or by blood transfusion from infected donors.
Outstanding events in the history of malaria control would have to include the vast projects conducted in Panama by American physician William C. Gorgas, who practically eliminated the disease that, together with yellow fever, had prevented the construction of the Panama Canal. Gorgas figured out that by eliminating the mosquito, you eliminate the disease.
Malaria is considered a worldwide disease, and there are probably more cases of it than any other major infection known to man. DDT was tested successfully during World War II against malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and after the war it was widely used in anti-malaria campaigns throughout the world, including right here in the Bay Islands.
As a boy growing up on Roatan, I recall technicians annually coming to our island and going door to door spraying all the homes with DDT. This occurred during the 1950s, 1960s and even during the early 1970s, long after the harmful effects of DDT had been exposed. In 1962 Rachel Carson published the book Silent Spring, which detailed the horrible and persistent effects of DDT on wildlife.
DDT was eventually banned in the United States and many other countries, although it is still recommended by the World Health Organization for malaria control in tropical areas under certain circumstances. Back in my childhood, however, we thought nothing of sucking in the sweet toxic smell of DDT that covered everything in our homes, never pondering what it was doing to the birds, butterflies, bees and other creatures in our environment.
Next month: Part II