Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Fever dreams

One of my superpowers* is being extraordinarily attractive to mosquitoes. Eating outside during the summer is torment - everyone sits there placidly while I spasmodically hit myself and end up covered in recycled blood and crushed insect bits. They really, really like me, and I don't know why.

There are theories about why some people are more enticing to mosquitoes than others, including the possibility that mosquitoes are more attracted to people with certain blood types than others, but no one really knows for sure (although I think the article's point about 'lazy and incapacitated prey' describes me really well).

Why do we care about mosquitoes? Malaria. Why should we care about it? Consider this: malaria has killed more people than any other disease in the history of man, not to mention shaping the fate of continents, population patters, and human physionomy to a simply extraordinary disease. And malaria is wily. It mutates and has managed to overcome everything we've thrown at it, from DEET to quinine.

Which brings me to Sonia Shah's Fever, an excellently composed, quick-moving book about malaria. Shah's book is part biography, part historiography, and part ethnography - but it's also an expose of how badly developed countries have failed at managing malaria, due in no small part to racism and bias.

Shah begins with a biography of sorts of the plasmodium parasite. There are hundreds of species of plasmodium, but humans are mainly afflicted with four (vivax, ovale, falciparum, and malariae). Shah traces the development of the parasite and its unique relationship to the mosquitoes it uses as disease vectors, revealing a complex interdependence between the fragile parasite and its insect and human hosts. In malarial regions, humans developed a number of mutations to combat the disease, including sickle-cell anemia and a number of other blood cell irregularities, which, although often eventually fatal, gave the bearer more of a chance of surviving malaria.

From the opening information-packed chapters (and if any of Shah's very accessible writing requires re-reading, it's these), Shah moves to the history of malaria and humans, particularly how malaria shaped the conquest of large swathes of the world and dictacted human movement. This section of the book is especially interesting, as it reveals the hidden role that malaria played in history, from the decline of the Roman empire to the settlement of the New World. Malaria ravaged European settlers who came to the southern areas of America, and even stretched up into New England after the development of mill power (the result of mosquitoes breeding in new stagnant bodies of water created by milldams), where it decimated populations that had no tolerance for the disease.

But Shah retains her ire for how malaria was treated (and not treated) in developing countries by the West. From the death of thousands of workers on British railways and the Panama canal to half-assed and underfunded attempts to eradicate malaria, Shah shows how many of these efforts have actually made malaria worse. Because of malaria's ability to mutate, use of things like DEET and malaria medications initially drove down the infection rates, but failed to eradicate the disease, and malaria became resistant and roared back with a vengeance.

What I find most gratifying about Shah's book is how she reveals how malaria - ignored in the First World - has so insidiously and completely shaped human history. Even the population patterns in the South are a relic from when malaria roamed the Carolinas and spread up the southern coast of the U.S. While malaria has been more or less rooted out from America and Europe, it still hobbles the economy and human capital of Africa and Asia. While completely destroying malaria may not be a possibility, Shah makes it clear that she considers it the First World's responsibility to fund the fight against the disease. Whether or not you agree with that particular point, Shah's Fever is a sharp, clearly written book about the facets of human's deadliest disease.

* This is part of my Superpower Theory, which postulates that everyone has one or more superpowers, but that these superpowers are not interesting or useful things like X-ray vision or flight or invisibility. My superpowers, aside from the aforementioned attractiveness to anything that bites and/or stings, include always, always getting stuff in my shoes and the ability to get lost even if I am driving somewhere I have driven to a million times before.

1 comment:

  1. I demand a post, NAY a series of posts on the Superhero theory with lots and lots of examples.