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What is Malaria?

By Jane Harmon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Malaria is a highly infectious disease transmitted from human to human by mosquitoes. Coined from the Italian for "bad air," this illness was originally thought to be caused by exposure to swampy air. When the relationship between the mosquito population and the transmission of the disease was finally recognized, controlling its spread became much easier.

Almost unknown in the US and Europe, malaria is more prevalent in tropical climates, where children and pregnant women are more at risk. Symptoms are fever, joint pain, shivering, vomiting, and anemia, which can appear months or even years after initially contracting the infection. The best way to deal with the disease is to prevent mosquito bites. Preventative measures like using DEET and other insect repellents, covering one's bed with mosquito-netting in the tropics, and wearing long sleeves are all recommended.

Malaria is diagnosed through microscopic examination of the blood cells. Once a patient is diagnosed, a variety of drugs can be helpful. Quinine, distilled from the bark of a South American tree, the cinchona, was an early drug that both treated and protected against contracting the parasite that causes the illness. It is still used against variants that have developed immunity to more modern drugs. It is of historical interest that quinine is the "tonic" ingredient in tonic water, which helps to explain the popularity of gin and tonic drinks in the tropics.

Sickle cell anemia, a genetic blood disease, is a caused by a mutation that evolved in humans living in high malaria risk areas. A person who inherits the mutation from "carrier" parents will have the chronic disease, which periodically flares up and causes bouts of extreme pain. Those who only receive one copy of the mutated gene, however, have an increased resistance to malaria. This resistance for some outweighed the painful disease in others, and the mutation prospered in parts of the tropics.

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Discussion Comments
By SteamLouis — On Dec 08, 2013

Did you guys know that a mother can pass malaria to her child during birth? I wasn't aware of this but it makes sense. This means that any kind of blood transfusion can spread the malaria disease.

By turquoise — On Dec 07, 2013

@fBoyle-- Malaria is common in poor, developing nations. It's out of control there because they lack the resources to treat malaria. They don't have medications, mosquito nets, preventive vaccinations, etc.

I think the main prevention method for malaria in Africa is a pesticide called DDT. The pesticide is dangerous and banned in most countries. But they still use it there because it's cheap. Of course it's damaging the ecosystem, the animals as well as human health in the process.

There are many global projects to fight malaria but a lot more needs to be done.

By fBoyle — On Dec 06, 2013

I'm looking up malaria information for an assignment and I read that about a million people die from malaria every year as of 2009. And most of these deaths occur in places like Africa.

I know that mosquitoes thrive in humid, hot air and they are responsible for malaria. But isn't a million deaths extreme? Why isn't something being done about this issue?

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