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Journalist shines light on social problems created by malaria malaria in historical context

<itically acclaimed writer of science, human rights, and international politics Sonia Shah opened her convocation speech last Friday by highlighting the deadly influence of malaria on human history. She described estimates that nearly one half of all human deaths since the Stone Age were caused by the disease, which continues to infect up to one and a half billion people every year and claiming nearly one million lives. In talking about malaria’s incredible impact on human civilization, Shah revealed the challenges we have faced and must still continue to confront in the battle against this disease – one we have actually had the cure to for over a century.

Shah illustrated how malaria contributed to both the rise and fall of the Roman empire, explaining how the rampant deforestation that resulted from its territorial expansion allowed malaria from North Africa to take root, ultimately triggering the many deadly epidemics that coincided with the empire’s fall. She emphasized that the disease also enhanced the Romans; in frequently coming into contact with malaria, they became more familiar and adapted to the chills and fevers it caused, allowing them to increase their immunity to the disease. Such an immunity then became a defense against invading Northern armies who had never come into contact with the disease, yet had to progress through malaria-ridden areas to attack the Romans. In later years, however, new strains of the disease began to significantly affect the Romans too, shattering their beliefs of immunity.  Shah also highlighted the history of malaria in U.S. history; European settlers had brought it to the ‘New World’ via Africa slaves, and the disease  “ravaged the United States until the 1930’s.” This disease of fever and chills was called “The Seasoning” and spread quickly from Jamestown to the North as well as the colonies in the South. 

More recently, Shah emphasized that malaria has greatly affected economies. The notion that a poor country allows for the disease to thrive notwithstanding, she argues that malaria ultimately forces country to remain in poverty. She highlighted how the disease “usually hits hardest during harvest time, affecting workers, debilitating agriculture, as well as killing infants and pregnant women first.”

Because treatment is so expensive, the disease ultimately marginalizes society’s most vulnerable to an even worse degree.

Shah explained why the disease was so effective and highly successful, despite that man had the knowledge of a cure as well for more than a century. She highlighted three central reasons as to why so many continue to die from malaria today. First is the scientific challenge: that the malaria parasite – of the Plasmodium species – goes through nine fundamentally different forms throughout its lifecycle, and thus “developing one vaccine to target one form will not necessarily affect any of the others.” The second is the economic challenge: usually the most vulnerable villages and populations have little if any access to basic amenities and public health infrastructure. Finally there is the cultural challenge, which Shah found to be the most surprising “because usually the infected care the least about it.” To them, she explained, this is considered “a normal part of life,” and is ultimately “an issue of risk perception. People in malarial countries cannot understand why outsiders invest so much time and anxiety into the disease.” Shah concluded how these three challenges manifest the fight with malaria into a political problem.

She illustrated the multiple political efforts in the last half century to contain the disease, where the United States devoted campaigns in Third World countries such as those in Africa and South East Asia towards defeating the disease. Skepticism in local communities quickly flourished however, as these efforts caused negative ecological consequences that had a more immediate impact on lives than malaria. Ultimately these campaigns were failures, leading to what Shah called “decades of neglect” where attention to malaria faded, research budgets plunged, and “general apathy sunk in.” Shah concluded that our recent inattention has allowed the disease to become much worse, stating that there are certain lessons to be learned from history. The connection between the disease and poverty has to be discerned, Shah argues, for tackling the disease with “technology alone” has already proven ineffective. In addition she stressed the importance of support for malaria research, and finally emphasized the need for political will to efficiently contain the disease’s deadly impact on society.

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