Malaria – It Has Something to do with Mosquitoes, Right?

A nuisance – that’s the word most Americans would use to describe mosquitoes. In general it’s an apt description for the small insect that announces its presence with that annoyingly high pitched buzzing in your ears, inevitably followed by a fit of frenzied slapping on your part. And of course they always manage to bite you in the most inconvenient places – the bottom of your foot, between your fingers, dead center of your forehead. But for millions of people living in malaria endemic regions of the world a mosquito is much more than a mere nuisance – it is the carrier of a potentially fatal disease.

Malaria is caused by the bite of an Anopheles mosquito that is infected with the Plasmodium parasite. When a mosquito takes a “blood meal”, the parasite is passed from the saliva of the infected mosquito to the human’s bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, the parasite travels to the liver where it grows and matures typically within the window of 5 to 30 days. With some rare forms of malaria however the parasite can remain dormant in the liver for up to four years. After maturation the parasite re-enters the bloodstream to begin a hostile takeover of red blood cells. The parasites multiply within a red blood cell until it bursts and they spill out in search of new red cells to invade. The rapid destruction of red blood cells by the parasites is what causes most of the recognizable symptoms of malaria including high fever, alternating chills and sweats, headache, dizziness, and fatigue. If left untreated the disease can worsen resulting in confusion, coma, and eventually death.

In 2010, 216 million cases of malaria were recorded worldwide and of that number 655,000 were fatal. About 90% of malaria related deaths occurr in Sub-Saharan Africa, the majority children under five years old. With such a startlingly large percentage of malaria deaths concentrated in one region of the world it makes sense that prevention and eradication efforts are similarly concentrated. In recent years there has been a huge international effort to decrease those grim statistics in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Peace Corps is one of the organizations contributing to that effort. In 2011, Peace Corps announced its new initiative “Stomping Out Malaria in Africa”. This initiative unites approximately 3,000 Peace Corps volunteers working in 23 African countries (Madagascar included) in the common goal of eradicating malaria. Volunteers in these countries are working hard to educate people about prevention methods such as sleeping under insecticide treated bed nets and going to the health clinic to be tested for malaria when symptoms arise. On World Malaria Day (April 25) volunteers will be giving speeches, teaching at schools, setting up informational booths in markets, painting murals, building mosquito piñatas, organizing parades, and countless other activities all to forward the goal of “stomping out” malaria.

The road to complete eradication will no doubt be a difficult one. Due to the nature of its transmission, malaria is epidemic prone. A single infected individual could be bitten by a mosquito that then transmits the parasite to ten other people who are then bitten by more mosquitoes and transmit to even more people and so on until the situation reaches epidemic level. But with thousands of dedicated volunteers working within the communities most affected by the disease and a new global awareness that brings in much needed resources we may yet find ourselves in a world where there are no more malaria carrying mosquitoes to stomp.

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