How Has Malaria Changed Human History?

ravaging illness shaped ancient and modern history

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Malaria is a dangerous parasitic illness that has plagued humanity for millennia. It kills more than half a million people per year worldwide. What impact has it had on the human race?

Dangerous Malaria Infected Mosquito Isolated on Black.
The transmission cycle of malaria continues as additional female Anopheles mosquitoes get infected by the Plasmodium parasite upon biting infected people, then carrying the malaria forward when they bite other people. Photo by nechaevkon / Shutterstock

Malaria has ravaged humanity for several thousand years. One of the oldest diseases on Earth, malaria is most prevalent in Africa and Southeast Asia. However, warming temperatures owing to climate change are driving animals and plants—including malaria-transmitting mosquitoes—further and further out into the world. Whether moving to higher altitudes or further from the equator, mosquitoes are causing malaria to spread to new areas.

This ancient parasitic infection has caused seemingly endless trouble for humanity. In his video series An Introduction to Infectious Diseases, Dr. Barry C. Fox, Clinical Professor of Infectious Disease at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, puts our history with malaria under the microscope.

How Has Malaria Changed the World?

“Malaria is a parasite transmitted by mosquito bites, which affects the functioning of our red blood cells, which controls the delivery of oxygen to the body,” Dr. Fox said. “Malaria is one of the oldest infectious diseases, more than half a million years old. And we’ve had plenty of time—over thousands of years—to conquer malaria, yet malaria still manages to infect one out of every 21 human beings on the planet, and 300 million humans yearly.”

How has malaria affected human history? In the early 1900s, during the construction of the Panama Canal, the hot and wet environment led to the spread of malaria, killing 30,000 workers and slowing construction of the canal. Many historians believe that malaria even contributed to the fall of Rome. Despite efforts by the World Health Organization to prevent and reduce malaria illness, the parasite still kills one child every minute in Africa.

“The reason malaria is so difficult to eradicate is that there’s a continuous cycle of infection occurring,” Dr. Fox said. “First, the infected mosquitoes carrying the malaria parasite bite a human and inject the parasite, causing illness. Meanwhile, another mosquito that is not infected bites a human who is infected and the mosquito becomes a new carrier, continuing the cycle of transmission.”

Can Malaria Be Eradicated?

Although most cases of malaria aren’t fatal, the illness is falling into a similar pattern of other diseases: Malaria is becoming resistant to treatment drugs, due to widespread misuse. Furthermore, mosquitoes that carry malaria are developing resistance to the very pesticides intended to kill them—including dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT, one of the first modern insecticides.

DDT was developed to treat typhus and malaria, but eventually got banned in the United States. Other countries still use it, but to ever-decreasing effectiveness.

“This is a preventable and curable illness that is still causing unacceptable death rates,” Dr. Fox said. “So even with the advances in medicine, new diagnostic tools, and treatment, malaria continues to be a deadly disease. We know what the vector of the disease is, how it spreads, how to cure it, but we’re unable to eradicate it.”

Another complication to eradicating malaria is that, like many global issues, it would require major and ceaseless efforts by dedicated and well-coordinated organizations.

An Introduction to Infectious Diseases is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily