A Menace Called Malaria

By: Sharon Bell

Malaria is an ancient disease which means "bad air." It was so named in the 18th century because it was linked to the foul air of swamps which people thought was responsible for the condition.

Bad air, of course, has nothing to do with malaria but mosquitoes found in swamps and other marshy areas are to blame. The female Anopheles mosquito in particular, carries the spore of the malaria parasite Plasmodium which it transmits from person to person.

The mosquito becomes infected when it draws blood from someone with malarial parasites or bites cattle, monkeys and other animals which have the disease. Other means of transmission are blood transfusions and the common use of syringes among drug addicts.

The parasites multiply in the mosquito and are trans?ferred to other people. Once in a person's bloodstream, they invade the liver where they grow and later destroy red blood cells.

Although the body can effectively fight off the infection for years, complications can occur when the damaged red cells clog up the capillaries and affect vital organs. This can lead to anemia, kidney failure, shock, coma and death.

The first symptoms of malaria usually occur from 12 to 30 days after the patient is bitten. These include headache, nausea, fatigue, rapid breathing, heavy sweating, fever and chills.

Hundreds of species of Anopheles mosquito can transmit the disease to humans but four species of malarial parasites are responsible: Plasmodium vivax, Plasmodium ovale, Plasmodium malariae and Plasmodium falcipamm. Of the four, the latter is the most common and most dangerous type. It is some?times called cerebral malaria because the blood vessels of the brain are affected and this can lead to sudden death.

Efforts to completely eradicate the disease have been futile since both parasites and mosquitoes have developed resistance to drugs and insecticides. Malaria has been elimi?nated in Europe, Australia and the United States but continues to ravage India, Pakistan, Asia, Central and South America and other tropical and subtropical countries.

Quinine, the first real treatment for malaria, is derived from the bark of the cinchona tree and was used by the Incas for hundreds of years.

Legend says this medicine was discovered after a malaria victim wandering in the forest plunged into a pond in which a cinchona tree had fallen. After drinking the water, his fever subsided and he was cured. Unfortunately, quinine has a lot of side effects and is rarely used now.

Chloroquine, a close relative of quinine, is one of the most widely used antimalarials today but drug resistance is common and there are a few side effects to worry about.

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