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Infectious Knowledge

Some historians believe that malaria epidemics greatly contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. DNA from the 1,500-year-old bones of a child found in a cemetery near Rome yielded evidence of a malaria epidemic. A large epidemic may explain why one of the greatest military machines in world history was too weak to repel invasions from the Visigoths, Huns, and Vandals. Did moral and urban decay befall Rome, or was it malaria?


Malaria is one of the most successful parasites ever known to mankind. After thousands of years, it remains the world's most pervasive infection, affecting at least 91 different countries and some 300 million people. The disease causes fever, shivering, joint pain, headache, and vomiting. In severe cases, patients can have jaundice, kidney failure, and anemia, and can lapse into a coma.

It is ever-present in the tropics and countries in sub-Saharan Africa, which account for nearly 90 percent of all malaria cases. The majority of the remaining cases are clustered in India, Brazil, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and China. Malaria causes 1 to 1.5 million deaths each year, and in Africa, it accounts for 25 percent of all deaths of children under the age of five.

Infectious Knowledge

Sir Ronald Ross, born in India in 1857, received the 1902 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his pioneering work on malaria, in which he laid the foundation for successful research on this disease and methods for combating it.

A Brief History of Malaria

Ancient accounts of malaria date back to Vedic writings of 1600 B.C.E. in India and to the fifth century B.C.E. in Greece, when the great Greek physician Hippocrates, often called “the Father of Medicine,” described the characteristics of the disease and related them to seasons and location. The discovery of an association of malaria with stagnant waters led the Romans to develop drainage programs, which were among the first documented preventions against malaria. In seventh-century Italy, the disease was prevalent in foul-smelling swamps near Rome and was named mal' aria Italian for “bad air.”

Malaria epidemics ravaged Europe and Africa for centuries. Like many diseases, it traveled with tradesmen, settlers, and conquering forces. Over four centuries of the slave trade, millions of Africans died from malaria, which may have come to the New World along with slaves.

Despite malaria's preference for the tropics, the disease has had an impact on the history of the United States, too. Known commonly as “fever and ague,” malaria took its toll on early American settlers. In the book Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder vividly describes its impact. Malaria devastated the 1607 Jamestown colony and regularly ravaged the South and Midwest. The incidence of malaria in the United States peaked in 1875. Yet, in 1914, more than 600,000 new cases were still occurring.

Malaria has been a factor in nearly all United States military campaigns. During the Civil War, armies on both sides sustained more than 1.2 million cases of malaria. It continued to be a problem in both World Wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. In the latter, malaria appeared in a newer, more deadly, drug-resistant form.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Dangerous Diseases and Epidemics © 2002 by David Perlin, Ph.D., and Ann Cohen. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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