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How colonialism & imperialism spread malaria

WW book review, part 1

Published Jan 24, 2008 11:03 PM

A Review of “The Making of a Tropical Disease: A Short History of Malaria” by Randall M. Packard (Johns Hopkins Biographies of Disease).

What Randall M. Packard does masterfully in his book on malaria is to integrate the biological complexity of the disease into its historical, social and economic context, even if he stops short of drawing all the obvious conclusions from the data he so ably presents.

The two questions Packard poses, which bear directly on how malaria can be controlled, are: how did the temperate countries of the world get rid of malaria? and why is malaria a serious health issue only in the economically underdeveloped, tropical and subtropical countries of the world?

Malaria strikes 300-500 million people a year according to World Health Organization estimates. It kills 1-3 million people a year, mainly children under 5 years of age living in sub-Saharan Africa.

Like all statistics from the poorest countries of the world, these estimates are incomplete. The countries most affected don’t have the resources to set up a minimum level of health care, much less count people who get sick but don’t die.

How malaria develops

There are four different kinds of malaria parasites. The most common and virulent is named Plasmodium fulciparum. Malaria is transmitted through the bite of an infected mosquito, which has become infected by biting a human host at a certain stage of the disease. It takes about 10 days for the parasite to mature inside of the mosquito, which has a maximum lifespan of 21 to 25 days.

Biologists believe malaria coevolved with humans in Africa. The earliest fossils of the anopheles mosquito, a genus that uses blood to nurture its eggs, is about 30 million years old. The 60 or so species of anopheles which transmit malaria are called vectors and each of them has a different behavior and a different ecological niche.

Malaria varies in how it appears in different areas. In some areas malaria is seasonal, in other areas it occurs year round. In some areas malaria might break out only under exceptional circumstances. In the North-Western Province of Zambia, for example, a health survey in 2005 concluded that for every thousand children under age five there were 1,353 cases of malaria, which means that many children are infected with malaria more than once a year.

Disease followed colonialism and war

The point Packard makes in his introduction and over and over again in the text is that malaria can spread and infect people even in temperate climates, but is only a serious health problem in some economically underdeveloped countries, that is, in the part of the world that was oppressed and colonized by the imperialists.

Packard starts with the malaria outbreak in the Russian city of Archangel, shortly after the Russian civil war in 1922-23. There were 1,000 deaths and 30,000 cases in a city just 125 miles south of the Arctic Circle. He then discusses West Bengal, a tropical area that did not know much malaria until under British rule irrigation practices changed, causing malaria to explode. But even in Palm Beach in 2003, in the state of Florida, which spends hundreds of millions of dollars on mosquito control, there was a small outbreak of mosquito-spread malaria.

The most virulent form of the malaria parasite can’t survive in its human hosts more than a few weeks so it probably didn’t migrate with the earliest humans out of Africa. As Packard puts it, “The expansion of malaria into ... more temperate regions ... probably did not occur to any great extent until the first millennium BCE,” that is, less than 3,000 years ago.

Sardinia is an early but clear example of how social and economic conditions—war and conquest, leading to changes in agricultural practices and the movement of people—spread malaria. Most probably, Sardinia was the source of the malaria that took hold in the Campagna marshes south of Rome, where it remained a threat until after World War II.

The Carthaginians conquered Sardinia, an island in the Mediterranean, south of France and west of Italy, in 502 BCE, cut down the forests in the lowlands and planted wheat and flax for export. The absence of trees produced floods, which left standing water, conditions the local mosquitoes used to multiply. Since the native inhabitants of Sardinia refused to let the Carthaginians enslave them and fled to the mountains, the Carthaginians imported workers from North Africa, who were infected with malaria.

When the Romans took Sardinia in 283 BCE, using it to supply most of Rome’s wheat, they also had to continuously import labor. So many agricultural workers died from malaria that being sent to Sardinia was the equivalent to a death sentence.

After Roman rule in the western part of the Empire collapsed, malaria began spreading through western and central Europe, becoming well established in England and France by the 15th century.

The history of malaria in England is very instructive, and shows how it was linked to the capitalist transformation of agriculture in the Fernlands of southeast England. During the 13th and early 14th century, the Fernlands had a large population that was decimated by the plague and other epidemics.

When the population of England began growing again in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Fernlands were drained for pasturage and grain. The drainage was done poorly, leaving standing water for mosquitoes to breed abundantly. Malaria started to ravage the local population. So many people died that labor became short and wages high, which led people from outside the area without any acquired resistance to keep migrating in.

But “the continued capitalization of agriculture in England,” according to Packard, led to the gradual disappearance of malaria in the Fernlands. Drainage improved, housing became better and more mosquito resistant, nutrition improved, agriculture became more efficient and the need for labor dropped.

Colonialism and slavery

Many of the poorer people emigrated to the colonies. This emigration probably spread malaria to North America but made it harder for an infected mosquito in the Fernlands to successfully find a host, because there were fewer people around.

French and Spanish colonialists very likely brought malaria to the Caribbean and Latin America, since many of them came from parts of France and Spain where malaria was rife.

But the major source of the most virulent form of malaria came to the Americas through the slave trade. Even if the enslaved Africans were from areas which didn’t have malaria, when they were forced onto plantations with ramshackle, crowded housing, inadequate sanitation, and poor food and in close contact with people who were infected and abundant anopheles mosquitoes, they quickly developed malaria and suffered more than people who had managed to build up some resistance through repeated exposure.

Many of the agricultural practices that were adopted in growing rice, sugar cane and cotton both in North and South America created new opportunities for mosquitoes, which spread malaria. The rising capitalist countries in Europe and North America—mainly Britain, France and the planters in the British colonies that would become the United States—made tremendous profits off these cultivations, which formed the base of their future wealth and power.

Malaria was widespread in North America, from Canada to the Deep South. After the Civil War, agricultural developments, similar to what happened in England, removed malaria as a major threat, without specific attention being devoted to its eradication. The exception was in the South, where the local bourgeoisie tried to maintain its hold on the descendants of enslaved people through sharecropping.

Next: How imperialism removed malaria from the developed world.