Malaria isn't new to the world of epidemic diseases. Records of its impact on human populations date back more than 4,000 years, when Greek writers noted its ravaging effects. Accounts of the mosquito-born illness pop up in ancient Indian and Chinese medical texts. Even then, scientists made the vital connections between the illness and the still waters where mosquitoes breed.
Malaria is caused by four species of Plasmodium microbes common to two species: mosquitoes and humans. When infected mosquitoes feed on human blood, they pass on the microbes. Once in the blood, the microbes grow inside red blood cells, destroying them in the process. Symptoms vary from mild to deadly, but typically include fever, chills, sweating, headache and muscle pains. You can read more about the disease in How Malaria Works.
Specific figures relating to ancient malaria epidemics are difficult to come by. The past effects of the disease can best be seen in examining large-scale human undertakings in malaria-infested areas. In 1906, the United States employed more than 26,000 workers to construct the Panama Canal. Organizers hospitalized more than 21,000 of these men for malaria.
Wartime soldiers of the past often experienced great losses to malaria. In the American Civil War alone, 1,316,000 men reportedly suffered from the illness and 10,000 died. During World War I, malaria immobilized British, French and German forces for three years. Nearly 60,000 U.S. soldiers died from the disease in Africa and the South Pacific during World War II.
At the end of World War II, the United States attempted to halt the malaria epidemic. The country initially made huge strides by using the now-banned insecticide Dichloro-diphenyl-trichlorethane (DDT), then followed up with preventive measures to keep mosquito populations low. After the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) declared malaria eradicated in the United States, the World Health Organization (WHO) set out to eradicate the illness worldwide. Results were mixed, however, and costs, war, politics, the emergence of drug-resistant strains of malaria and insecticide-resistant mosquitoes eventually led to the project's abandonment.
Today, malaria continues to pose a problem in much of the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, an area that was excluded from the WHO eradication campaign. Each year, between 350 and 500 million cases of malaria occur in the region. Of those cases, more than a million result in death. Even in the United States, more than a thousand cases and a handful of deaths occur each year, despite previous claims of eradication.
Next, learn about a disease that has affected mankind since the days of mummies and ancient Egypt.