Hitting a Nerve

Malaria: Not just someone else’s problem


What is the most dangerous animal on Earth? Which one has killed more humans since we first began walking upright?

The mind leaps to the vicious and dangerous – great white sharks. lions. tigers. crocodiles. The fearsome predators of the planet But realistically, more people are killed and injured by large herbivores each year than predators. Just watch news updates from Yellowstone during their busy season.

Dr. Allan M. Block, a neurologist in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Dr. Allan M. Block

Anyway, the correct answer is ... none of the above.

It’s the mosquito, and the many microbes it’s a vector for. Malaria, in particular. Even today, one to two people die each minute from malaria on planet Earth. Even the once-devastating bubonic plague is no longer a major concern.

What do Presidents Washington, Kennedy, Eisenhower, Lincoln, Monroe, Grant, Garfield, Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, and other historical VIPs like Oliver Cromwell, King Tut, and numerous kings, queens, and popes all have in common? They all had malaria. Cromwell, Tut, and many royal and religious figures died of it.

You can make a solid argument that malaria is the disease that’s affected the course of history more than any other (you could make a good case for the plague, too, but it’s less relevant today). The control of malaria is what allowed the Panama canal to happen.

I’m bringing this up because, mostly overlooked in the news recently as we argued about light beer endorsements, TV pundits, and the NFL draft, is the approval and gradual increase in use of a malaria vaccine.

This is a pretty big deal given the scope of the problem and the fact that the most effective prevention up until recently was a mosquito net.

We tend to see malaria as someone else’s problem, something that affects the tropics, but forget that as recently as the 1940s it was still common in the U.S. During the Civil War as many as 1 million soldiers were infected with it. Given the right conditions it could easily return here.

Which is why we should be more aware of these things. As COVID showed, infectious diseases are never some other country’s, or continent’s, problem. They affect all of us either directly or indirectly. In the interconnected economies of the world illnesses in one area can spread to others. Even if they don’t they can still have significant effects on supply chains, since so much of what we depend on comes from somewhere else.

COVID, by comparison, is small beer. Just think about smallpox, or the plague, or polio, as to what an unchecked disease can do to a society until medicine catches up with it.

There will always be new diseases. Microbes and humans have been in a state of hostilities for a few million years now, and likely always will be. But every victory along the way is a victory for everyone, regardless of who they are or where they live.

Dr. Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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