Ask Fuzzy: A scourge for centuries

Ask Fuzzy: A scourge for centuries

Ten thousand years ago, a pioneering human farmer was struck down by a fever. A fever that would go on to cause the deaths of popes, emperors and millions of others, becoming one of the deadliest killers in history. The disease has been called by many names, but it is now known by its medieval Italian name Mal' aria, literally translated to bad air. Mal' aria, or malaria, was attributed to the air or vapours associated with swamps, marshes and other areas of stagnant water.

By the mid-1600s, people had discovered that extract from the bark of the Peruvian chinchona tree mixed with sweetened water (now known as tonic water) could ease and even cure malaria. The bark quickly became one of colonial Peru's greatest exports and it is likely much of Europe's colonisation efforts into Africa and South-East Asia was only made possible thanks to a stiff G&T.

Mosquitoes transmit the Plasmodium parasite from person to person.

Mosquitoes transmit the Plasmodium parasite from person to person.

Photo: Walter and Eliza Hall Institute

We now know, thanks to the work of French scientist Alphonse Laveran in the late 1800s, that malaria is not caused by stagnant air, but is in fact caused by a type of unicellular parasite, called Plasmodium, that lives and feeds inside a person's red blood cells. The chemical quinine is toxic to the Plasmodium parasite.

Shortly after, Sir Ronald Ross observed that the parasite could be found in the guts of mosquitoes and discovered they transmit the parasite person to person, explaining the historic association with swamps, the breeding grounds of mosquitoes. By the mid 20th century, effective drug treatments and insecticides made eradicating malaria an attractive and achievable idea.

Today, while much of the developed world has managed to rid itself of this disease, it is still responsible for killing over half a million people every year, primarily African children. Experts fear this number may begin to rise due to the emergence of parasites resistant to our strongest drugs and a changing climate that allows mosquitoes to thrive in areas where they normally don't reside. Historically, vaccines have proven the most effective tool in eradicating disease yet no effective vaccine exists (why, will be a future Ask Fuzzy column). If something is not done soon, it is likely many more people will be struck down by this deadly fever.

Response by: Henry Sutton, PhD candidate, John Curtin School of Medical Research

The Fuzzy Logic Science Show is 1100am Sundays on 2xx 98.3FM. Send your questions to Twitter @FuzzyLogicSci

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