Mal’aria? I don’t smell anything.

Some researchers state that humanity is on the verge to invent a vaccine against malaria. That would be great news, because Malaria is a notorious disease. In 2015 it infected roughly 121 million people with an estimated 429.000 death, most of which were children.

Time to shine a light on this disease in my blog. First some history and basics, next time we’ll learn about the search for that vaccine in a particular study in the Netherlands.

Although Malaria is a well-known disease, most Western people are only confronted with it when they travel to far away countries around the equator and they are going through their usual list of questions: 1. Do I need a special adapter to charge my phone? 2. Do I need a visa and by the way where is my passport? 3. Do I need to take a precautionary medicine for malaria or not?

But actually, not too long ago, this disease was also endemic (read my previous blog if you don’t know what that means) in Europe and in the USA. During World War II for example, approximately 500,000 men became infected with Malaria in Europe. Bet you didn’t know that.

Swamps and Miasma

Our very own granddad of medicine, Hippocrates, has described a disease with fever that would come after draining swamps and lakes. He was a believer of the “Miasma” theory, most people believed that you actually could get sick from bad air. In this case that the fumes from the swamps were the cause of the illness. Malaria even has its name derived from this Miasma theory; Mal Aria means Bad Air in Italian.

You might say: oh, stupid people, what were you thinking in 400 BC? Understand however that the Miasma theory has had an impact on the profession of medicine well into the 19th century.
But rest assured, you don’t need to shower, Malaria really has nothing to do with (your) bad air. It is all about the water where the mosquitos live. Without the mosquito: no Malaria! To be even more precise: malaria is caused by a parasite, Plasmodium, that specific mosquitos carry and inject humans with. At this moment there are 5 different Malaria species known of which P. Falciparum is the most famous one, but please don’t ask him for his signature.

Hide and Sick

Malaria can give you a lot of symptoms, but fever is for sure the numbero uno give-away. Unfortunately, the parasite can be a practical joker. It lives in different stages. Some of these stages are in your blood which are easily targeted by treatment, in other stages the parasite looks for a quiet place in the liver and can actually hide there for years before you get sick, resulting in a different treatment strategy.

Sometimes, natural medicine rocks

Now as a medical doctor, I’m not the biggest fan of traditional medicine. I’ve seen many times how the “traditional doctor” did not know the actual cause of the symptoms and just did some vague Magician Act. However, this does not mean that I don’t believe that nature has most of the answers to our problems. We’ve seen this for example with the discovery of Penicillin from a fungus, and yes, also in the treatment of Malaria, nature saved our asses again: the two most effective treatments for Malaria are both nature based.
The first effective treatment for malaria came from the bark of the cinchona tree, which contains quinine. The second drug is Artimisinine, which is a Chinese herb. It was used in China for many years to treat fever and hemorrhoids (love that combination).
Both of these drugs are used to make new variations to treat Malaria. But we need to go the extra mile. There is an actual danger for Resistance against these medicines. Here we go again. 

In summary: Bad air is difficult to breathe in, but does not actually cause Malaria … or hemorrhoids.

Next week: vaccination time

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