By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM
Malaria: The Geography of a Debilitating Disease
Malaria has been a longtime scourge upon many countries of the world. Malaria was wiped out in the U.S. South in the 1930’s, confirming epidemiologists’ and the medical community’s belief that this disease could be eradicated in this country. Scholars at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) continue to keep a close eye on any cases of malaria imported internationally, because of its potential to spread. Quickly treating occasional imported sources reduces chances of an outbreak.
One of the increasing concerns too has been the rise of a strain of drug-resistant malaria. Scientists now believe, however, that they are inching closer to altering the DNA of wild mosquitoes in order to fight the disease. This would be a break-through of epic proportions.
Prevalent in the tropics and subtropics, malaria kills almost 1 million people a year. The World Health Organization estimates there are about 250 million cases of malaria globally, with more than 210 million of those in Africa. Shockingly, most cases are both preventable and curable.
Malaria is caused by the parasite Plasmodium, which is spread from person to person through the bite of the infected female Anopheles mosquito. In the human body, the parasites multiply in the liver and then infect the red blood cells.
Between 10 and 15 days after the mosquito bite, a malaria victim experiences fever, headache and vomiting. It left untreated, malaria disrupts the blood supply to vital organs and can quickly become life threatening.
Early diagnosis and quick treatment of malaria are the most effective methods for controlling the disease. With just these two basic interventions, the duration of the disease can be shortened and complications leading to death can be prevented.
Unfortunately, malarial parasites have developed resistance to many of the medications once used to combat the disease. Thankfully, scientists have developed a new group of antimalarial drugs in the last decade known as artemisinin-based therapies. These new drugs seem to be more effective at curing malaria than medicines used previously.
Communities can also use long-lasting insecticidal nets and indoor insecticide spraying to reduce the risk of being bitten by an infected mosquito. While nets mostly provide personal protection, they can actually protect an entire community when more than 80 percent of the inhabitants use them. Most of the homes in an at-risk area must also be sprayed with insecticides to achieve optimal protection.
While the interventions for preventing and curing malaria seem relatively simple, they are unavailable to many of the world’s poorest people. Worldwide, approximately 3.3 billion people (half the world’s population) are at risk from the disease.
The WHO reports that malaria is endemic in more than 100 countries. Over 80 percent of the world’s malaria cases occur in Africa south of the Sahara. Central and tropical South America and Southwest, South, Southeast and East Asia also are endemic areas, meaning that there are reservoirs of malarial cases scattered across these regions. Even in desert regions of the world, such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq, irrigation ditches are havens for breeding mosquitoes.
According to the WHO, one in every five childhood deaths in Africa (20 percent) is due to the effects of the disease. On average, an African child has between 1.6 and 5.4 episodes of malaria fever each year. Additionally, a child there dies from malaria every 45 seconds.
The WHO estimates that in countries with the highest levels of malaria transmission, the disease causes an average loss of 1.3 percent of annual economic growth. Malaria contributes to the cycle of poverty in poor countries. While it impairs learning in children and adults, it also decreases attendance at schools and workplaces.
The scientific research surrounding malaria is vast. Already, scientists have created mosquitoes that are resistant to malaria—that is, they have introduced genes into mosquitoes that disrupt the malarial parasite’s development. The challenge, however, has been to get those genes to spread from the malaria-resistant mosquitoes to the world’s wild mosquitoes. Scientists at Imperial College London and the University of Washington in Seattle are inching ever closer to solving that problem according to the BBC (April 2011).
With an estimated $4.2 billion needed to fully fund the fight against malaria worldwide, the costs may be prohibitive in today’s economy. This is a shame, however, as the savings from eradicating malaria would greatly exceed the projected costs.
And that is Geography in the News.
Sources: GITN #1094 “New Malaria Science,” May 20, 2011, Maps.com; GITN #728; and “Malaria: The Plague of the Tropics,” May 14, 2004, Maps.com.
Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.