Photo courtesy of CDC, viewed at National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
After years of decline, malaria is on the move, and despite the recent headlines given to the "catch-me-you're-dead" Ebola virus, it's malaria that counts its victims in the millions: the disease infects about 400 million people each year, according to the World Health Organization.
About 1,200 Americans are infected with malaria each year; most while traveling abroad. The 1995 Michigan case was not the only recent infection in temperate parts of the United States: in 1993, two people in New York City, which is at least 1,000 miles north of malaria country, caught the ancient illness from mosquitoes that had fed on infected people in the area. Since the outbreak limited itself, mosquito-control efforts were not needed (see Mosquito-transmitted malaria...).
But since anopheles mosquitoes live in the summer all over the United States, there's a possibility that the disease could reestablish itself here. From colonial times until well after the Civil War, malaria was endemic in parts of the Mississippi Valley and Chesapeake Bay.
Four parasites, all in the genus Plasmodium, cause various forms of malaria. Malaria expert Clive Shiff of Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health, explains that Plasmodium falciparum is the most severe species since it can infect any red-blood cell. P. falciparum can cause severe anemia and kidney failure, or it can constrict small blood vessels and cause cerebral malaria. Either problem can be deadly.
Although Africa is unlucky enough to be the focus of P. falciparum infection, the species is also found in Southeast Asia and Latin America.
How does the malaria parasite do its dirty work?
Whatever Happened to Malaria Eradication?
Once upon a time, malaria seemed destined for the history books, since it was supposedly caught in a pincer attack. Larvacides and insecticides were used to lambaste mosquitoes before they could carry the parasite between victims. And then a cheap, plant-derived medicine called chloroquine could kill parasites before they gained a foothold in their victims.
From the end of World War II through roughly 1970, malaria was indeed on the decline. And with its status as a global scourge waning, it was not a place to make a big name in medicine.
Then nature took over, with a little help from modern ecological disturbances and tight government budgets:
The unfortunate result, says Shiff, was a resurgence of malaria. "There were major programs to control malaria, and they were very successful." But the need to use more expensive insecticides over a broader range meant they were not sustainable."
Want to read about another mosquito-borne menace -- the charmingly named "breakbone fever"?
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