The man who checked into a New York City hospital in May with what were believed to be symptoms of Ebola virus infection has tested negative for that disease, but what doctors think he is infected with is also a public health risk in the developing world: malaria. News organizations have reported that the high fever and gastrointestinal problems that sent the Columbia University graduate student to the hospital may well have been something he picked up in his travels to Sierra Leone, but not Ebola. However, being more prosaic&mash;or less topical&mash;than Ebola doesn’t mean malaria isn’t dangerous.
In fact, one million deaths each year are attributed to malaria, making it the seventh deadliest illness in the developing world. It’s not directly contagious, but it is easily passed from mosquitoes to people, and it is easily picked up by mosquitoes who sting infected people; in all, more than 200 million people get malaria this way each year, many of them children, in the tropical areas near the Equator. There are five species of parasite that cause malaria, and at least 26 different strains of the disease, which makes it difficult to treat&mash;because these strains respond differently to medications from each other&mash;and difficult to vaccinate against, because an immune response to one doesn’t necessarily generalize to the others.
Treatment is especially difficult lately, because drug resistance is on the rise, with medications being less effective as the parasites adapt to them. Malaria patients in Asia are being found with parasites that are completely resistant to current first-line drugs, requiring doctors to turn elsewhere to eliminate the threat. This is why it is important to attack the disease at its source and stop it from spreading. Researchers are investigating ways to apply criminal profiling techniques to find the breeding sites of the mosquitoes that carry the parasite. Once these sites are found, the mosquitoes can be eliminated, or treated to produce only harmless males. Alternatively, scientists are looking at ways to cure malaria in mosquitoes, so it cannot be passed to people.