Plasmodium species  
The Bug

The History of Malaria                  prepared by Raymond Chow

The 17th century Italians suspected that the disease characterized by periodic chills and fever and enlargement of the spleen was caused by the vapors of the swamps near Rome. They named this disease malaria, which meant “bad air” in Latin. Even before it was called malaria, the symptoms of this disease were described in the writings of the ancient Greek, Chinese, and Hindu cultures. Malaria is a disease that has affected the outcomes of wars, infecting soldiers of both ancient battles and modern conflicts.

The World Health Organization (WHO) began a worldwide campaign to eradicate malaria in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The discovery of the insecticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) contributed to a drastic reduction of the adult mosquito population. Draining of marshes and fields helped reduce potential mosquito breeding grounds. This, in combination with chloroquinine drug treatment of malaria patients and contacts, succeeded in eliminating malaria from Europe, USA, and Australia. Malaria was largely reduced in Asia, and still a large problem in Latin American and Africa. In the parts of the world where malaria could not be eradicated, malaria control and containment became the strategy.

Unfortunately, malaria has been on the rise since the 1970’s. Mosquitoes have been developing resistance to DDT. Plasmodium, the parasite responsible for causing malaria, began to develop resistance against chloroquine. Armed conflicts changed the conditions in countries to promote malaria transmission. Creation of dams and reservoirs provided potential mosquito breeding grounds. The success of commercial air travel meant that more travelers could be exposed to malaria when visiting endemic areas. All these factors contribute to the growing opinion that malaria is a disease that requires the world’s attention once again.

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Copyright 1999-2007 Department of Microbiology, Mount Sinai Hospital, Toronto, Canada. All rights reserved.