When malaria killed Europeans, by Xavier Carmaniu Mainadé

Since the coronavirus pandemic was declared, the entire scientific community has worked day and night to find a vaccine. Not all diseases have had the same fate, despite being more dangerous. Malaria, without going any further.

Determined to definitively subdue covid-19, from the first world we may not have paid enough attention to medical news of great importance for the future of humanity: the WHO has given the go-ahead to the start of a massive vaccination campaign against malaria. Every year this disease kills 400,000 people, 260,000 of whom are African children under the age of five.

All this seems to be a long way from our privileged Europe, but not so long ago malaria also plagued the Old Continent. For centuries it was present in this part of the world. In fact, his name means “bad air” in old Italian. The term was born in the Middle Ages, when doctors, based on the knowledge inherited from ancient Rome, believed that diseases were transmitted through the fetid emanations of impure waters. According to them, these bad odors (bad air) caused diseases. Today the so-called miasmatic theory is a hypothesis totally surpassed by science.

During the 4th and 5th centuries BC. c., Greek Hippocratic medicine described that near where there was stagnant water, cases with fever easily identifiable with malaria proliferated. In Rome there are also witnesses of similar episodes during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD c. In fact, according to an article published in the journal ‘Medical History’ by the team from the Institute of Science and Technology of the University of Manchester headed by Dr. Robert Sallares, points to the Malaria as one of the key elements in the fall of the Roman Empire, due to the great mortality it caused.

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Later, in medieval times, it advanced beyond the Italian peninsula and reached the areas of the current France, Germany and UK. This was made possible both by favorable weather conditions and by the urban growth of cities. The increase in population density favored the appearance of contagious diseases.

Malaria was one of many diseases that Europeans spread across America when they began to colonize that continent. It was there that they found the first natural remedies to deal with fevers: the cinchona tree, from which the quinine. The remedy was soon imported into Europe and this perhaps prevented a real disaster in France. When in the seventeenth century Louis XIV it was put into his head to convert Versailles in the largest palace ever seen, he mobilized 36,000 workers. Many of those who built the gardens died of malaria. The sources speak of “thousands” of victims, without specifying the number. The heir to the throne himself, the Dauphin, contracted the disease but he was saved thanks to quinine.

According to scientists specialized in paleomicrobiology, the disease was advancing when some type of mosquito I could pass it on. This explains why it always appeared in humid areas. For example, where canals were made, such as Saimaa (Finland) or Panama. Or in the trenches.

During the First World War, soldiers spent months and months buried alive in long front lines dug out in the middle of Europe in unsanitary conditions. More deadly than enemy weapons were diseases. Among them malaria. The British Empire, in 1917 alone, lost 70,000 soldiers to fevers.

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The US was also able to prove that a disease could be as deadly as the best-armed army. During the WWII, half a million troops deployed in the Pacific area were infected and it is estimated that some 60,000 died of malaria.

From the second half of the 20th century, its expansion was gradually controlled, although at the cost of very serious consequences for the environment and human health, especially when the DDT insecticide to eliminate mosquitoes. Since then, it has been located in countries of the so-called Third World and this has slowed down the search for a remedy. Among diseases there are also differences between rich and poor.

The Finding of the Vector

know that the mosquito was the transmitter of malaria took many centuries. The first who could prove it scientifically and definitively was the British doctor ronald ross, which was destined for India. He made the discovery on August 20, 1897. And for this reason, World Mosquito Day is commemorated annually on that date.

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