Friday, February 15, 2002

What is Malaria?

Malaria is an infectious disease characterized by fever, chills, nauseau, and general discomfort. It is caused by a single-celled parasite known as Plasmodium that infects and destroys red blood cells. Malaria is transmitted or passed by a mosquito that bites an infected individual, carrying the parasite to another person. More than 24 million people are infected with Plasmodium each year and 3 million people, mostly children, die from the disease.

Malaria has been around since the times of Ancient Egyptians. It used to be very widespread, effecting all of Africa, Asia, South America, southern Europe, and even North America. Cases as far north as Philadelphia used to be common occurrences. Today, the areas affected by malaria are somewhat smaller, mainly due to changes in the water systems in the early 1990s. Sub-Suharan Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia are still hard hit areas.

There are three main ways to combat malaria. The first is to get rid of the mosquito population that transmits the parasite. This can be done by removing free-standing water that has accumulated in jars, tires, and other containers. Sewers can also be built to drain areas that have a lot of free-standing water. Spraying houses with insecticides, which are chemicals that kill insects without harming the environment or humans, can also terminate mosquitoes. A common spray that was widely used was DDT, although its use has recently been banned. The second way to combat malaria is to reduce the amount of exposure that humans have to mosquitoes. This includes wearing long sleeved shirts and pants when outside, sleeping under bed netting, using insect repellent, and staying indoors at dawn and dusk--the two times of the day when mosquitoes are the most active. Finally, if someone comes down with malaria there is a wide range of drugs that can be used to treat that individual. The most commonly used drug is chloroquine.

Unfortunately, many people who are administered chloroquine do not finish their recommended treatment. This, coupled with dramatic, but insufficient, worldwide efforts in the 1950s to spray areas with constant or endemic malaria, have resulted in the emergence of drug-resistant parasites and pesticide-resistant mosquitoes. This emergence has serious consequences for world health. Areas that are now malaria-free may experience a reoccurence of the disease. Luckily, researchers around the globe are focusing on finding new treatments for eradicating malaria.