The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years

The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years

by Sonia Shah

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In recent years, malaria has emerged as a cause célèbre for voguish philanthropists. Bill Gates, Bono, and Laura Bush are only a few of the personalities who have lent their names--and opened their pocketbooks--in hopes of curing the disease. Still, in a time when every emergent disease inspires waves of panic, why aren't we doing more to eradicate one of

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In recent years, malaria has emerged as a cause célèbre for voguish philanthropists. Bill Gates, Bono, and Laura Bush are only a few of the personalities who have lent their names--and opened their pocketbooks--in hopes of curing the disease. Still, in a time when every emergent disease inspires waves of panic, why aren't we doing more to eradicate one of our oldest foes? And how does a parasitic disease that we've known how to prevent for more than a century still infect 500 million people every year, killing nearly 1 million of them?

In The Fever, the journalist Sonia Shah sets out to answer these questions, delivering a timely, inquisitive chronicle of the illness and its influence on human lives. Through the centuries, she finds, we've invested our hopes in a panoply of drugs and technologies, and invariably those hopes have been dashed. From the settling of the New World to the construction of the Panama Canal, through wars and the advances of the Industrial Revolution, Shah tracks malaria's jagged ascent and the tragedies in its wake, revealing a parasite every bit as persistent as the insects that carry it. With distinguished prose and original reporting from Panama, Malawi, Cameroon, India, and elsewhere, The Fever captures the curiously fascinating, devastating history of this long-standing thorn in the side of humanity.

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Editorial Reviews

Abigail Zuger
Human history marches to the beat of what? A big brass band? A choir singing hymns? The lub-dub of the human heart? Sonia Shah's tour-de-force history of malaria will convince you that the real soundtrack to our collective fate is none of these: it is the syncopated whine-slap, whine-slap of man and mosquito duking it out over the eons…Ms. Shah…has performed a real public service in telling the story of malaria with all the drama, intrigue and human interest left intact.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
This fascinating, mordant pop-sci account tells us why malaria is one of the world’s greatest scourges, killing a million people every year and debilitating another 300 million, and why we have remained complacent about it. Journalist Shah (The Body Hunters: Testing New Drugs in the World’s Poorest Patients) shows how the Plasmodium parasite, entering through a mosquito’s bite and feasting on human red blood cells, has altered human history by destroying armies, undermining empires, and driving changes in our very genome. We’ve learned to fight back with antimalarial drugs and insecticides, but malaria’s adaptability and its buzzing vector, Shah notes, give it the upper hand. Shah provides an intricate and lucid rundown of the biology and ecology of malaria, but her most original insights concern the ways in which human society accommodates and abets the parasite. (The impoverished denizens of Africa’s malaria belt, she observes, would sometimes rather use the pesticide-laced bed nets sent by Western aid groups to catch fish.) Shah’s is an absorbing account of human ingenuity and progress, and of their heartbreaking limitations. 16 pages of b&w illus. (July)
The New York Times

Sonia Shah's tour-de-force history of malaria will convince you that the real sound track to our collective fate [is] the syncopated whine-slap, whine-slap of man and mosquito duking it out over the aeons.

An often rollicking read . . . Shah has put together an engrossing cast of doctors, malariologists, and historical figures.
The Wall Street Journal

Elizabeth Kolbert

The Fever is a vivid and compelling history with a message that's entirely relevant today.
Nina Munk

I didn't just read The Fever--I inhaled it. It's a fascinating book, elegantly written and superbly well researched: a poignant and important reminder of malaria's relentless human toll.
Malcolm Molyneux

A thrilling detective story, spanning centuries, about our erratic pursuit of a villain still at large and still a threat to mankind. The Fever is rich in colorful detail and engagingly told. An astonishing array of characters has joined the fray, and you can only be amazed at the deviousness and skill of the archenemy.
Bart Knols

Extremely well-researched, The Fever provides a highly gripping account of one of mankind's worst diseases. Highly recommended.
The Boston Globe

An insightful book explores the human struggle with malaria not just from a scientific angle, which is cogently detailed without being overwhelming, but also from sociological and anthropological perspectives. . . . Shah is to be commended.

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The Fever

How Malaria has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years

By Sonia Shah

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2010 Sonia Shah
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-8117-0



The view through the mosquito net is blurry, but I can see the thick skin of grime on the leading edge of each blade of the ceiling fan as it slowly whirs around, keening alarmingly. This is how it was every summer when I visited my grandmother's house in southern India. While my cousins snore on the bed mats laid across the floor beside me, glistening bodies bathed in the warm night breeze, my sleeping mat is ensconced in a hot, gauzy cage. The mosquitoes descend from the darkened corners of the whitewashed room and perch menacingly on the taut netting, ready to exploit any flicker of movement from their prey within. It is hard to fall asleep knowing they are there, watching me, but eventually I drop off and my tensed body uncurls. They sneak into the gaps my protruding limbs create, and feast.

In the morning, all my hard work of trying to fit in, to overcome the Americanness of my suburban New England life, has been undone, for my Indian cousins are smooth and brown while I am speckled with bleeding scabs. My grandmother vigorously pats talcum powder over my wounds, the white powder caking pink with congealed blood, as my cousins snicker. I don't understand how they escape unscathed while I am tormented. But incomprehension is part of the package of these childhood summers in India. Just outside my grandmother's house ragged families huddle in rubble along the road and use the train tracks as their toilet. They wave their sticklike arms in my face and moan woefully when we pass by on the way to temple, caricatures of beggars. One boy's leg has swollen to the size of a log, and is gray and pimpled, from some disease brought on by a mosquito bite. My grandmother tightens her grip on my hand. We give the children nothing. I can't understand this, either. When we get to the white marble temple, it is full of incense and golden statues encrusted with diamonds and rubies — to my seven-year-old mind, the very picture of prosperity.

Part of me despises my estrangement, my incomprehension, the fact that I must sleep under the suffocating net and take the malaria pills while my cousins don't. But part of me is secretly glad. The boy with the swollen leg frightens me. The family who lives on the curb frightens me. India frightens me. These fears, for the girl who is supposed to be Indian but isn't, are unspeakable.

When no one is looking, I crush the mosquitoes' poised little figures with my palm and smear the remains on a hidden seam in the couch. Our Jain religion forbids violence of any kind. No eating meat. No swatting flies. My grandmother wears a mask over her mouth while she prays, to protect airborne microbes from inadvertent annihilation in her inhalations, and considers walking on blades of grass a sin. Meanwhile, there I am in the corner, cravenly pulverizing mosquito corpses behind my back, blood literally on my hands.

Back home in New England, the mosquitoes still bite, but there are no nets at night, no pills to take, no scary beggars on the side of the road. We shop for forgettable plastic trinkets at the mall. My fear and loathing of the mosquito are blunted into games of tag. My father calls himself Giant Mosquito, undulates his fingers like proboscises and chases me and my sister. It's scary, but fun-scary. We screech with glee and stampede through the house.

* * *

Thirty years later, on the S-shaped land bridge between the North and South American continents, I meet José Calzada. Calzada is a mosquito stalker of sorts, and I, the mosquito hater, have come to learn about the local mosquitoes and their exploits. A parasitologist from Panama City, Panama, Calzada spends his time rushing to the scene of disease outbreaks across the isthmus. The mosquito-borne parasite that causes malaria, Plasmodium, is one of his specialties.

It is April 2006. For most of the past century, there hasn't been much work in this field for people such as Calzada. Panama prides itself on being one of just a handful of tropical developing countries to have tamed its mosquitoes and nearly conquered malaria. American military engineers built a canal through Panama in the early 1900s, and forced malaria to retreat to the remote fringes of the country. Since then it has stagnated, primarily in its most benign incarnation, vivax malaria, which is rarely fatal.

But things have changed in recent years, and Calzada has agreed to show me some obscure signs. He emerges from the imposing Gorgas Memorial Institute, Panama's sole health research center. Clean-shaven and trim, Calzada has a slightly worried look in his eyes that is offset by high cheekbones suggesting a perpetual half-smile. I wait while he meticulously changes out of his work clothes — button-down oxford shirt and slacks — and into a T-shirt and jeans. Climbing into my diminutive white rental car and tossing a baseball cap on top of his backpack in the backseat, he patiently directs me out of the labyrinthine metropolis. Navigating Panama City's congested streets, past shiny skyscrapers and packed cafés, is a task that challenges even my well-honed Boston driving skills.

After twenty minutes heading east out of the city, the road turns quiet. It's a lovely drive, with hills in the distance, verdant pasture and scrub unbroken save for a few elaborately gated houses set far back from the road. Colombian drug lords, Calzada says, by way of explanation. Another hour passes, and the road rises, a glittering lake coming into view, just visible through a tangle of jungle. As we near the water, the pavement ends, and we pull over.

Here, at the end of the road, is the town of Chepo. From what I can see, it consists of a wooden lean-to facing a sleepy roadside café. Two police officers amble out of the lean-to, which turns out to be a checkpoint. They take my passport and vanish, leaving Calzada and me to buy a cold drink at the near-empty café. As we sit, I can just make them out in the murk within the lean-to, inspecting the blue passport with great care, turning it over and over in their hands as if for clues to some baffling mystery.

Inspection completed, Calzada leads us on foot behind the road. The hillside is green and lush, with a slick red clay track leading to the crest. He heads up and I follow gingerly.

At the top of the hill lies an improbable settlement. Packed together, not ten feet apart, are dozens of hand-built ranchos, their thatched roofs sitting on top of roughly hewn wooden poles. More arbor than hut, some of the structures rest on concrete slabs, with airy wooden-slat walls on three sides, but most are fully open-air, situated directly on the packed dirt. Inside the ranchos, smoldering fires are encircled by battered metal cooking vats, parrots sit on overturned baskets, and hammocks sway from high rafters.

From the road, Chepo seems abandoned, but in fact, three hundred of Panama's indigenous Kuna people live here, tucked away.

It starts to rain, and we duck under the eaves of a rancho. Women pass to and fro in bright puffed-sleeve cotton blouses with patterned molas tied around their waists and elaborate beaded anklets that reach up to their calves. They are cutting plantains, carrying plump naked children. One puts out a giant metal vat to collect the rainwater sliding off the thatch. A rooster strides by purposefully.

A half-dozen boys clad in saggy cotton underwear and wearing shell necklaces happily kick a deflated green soccer ball. One boy, around eight years old and wearing cracked red plastic flip-flops, gnaws on a green mango pit while absentmindedly pulling on his penis. A little girl walks by holding a baby covered in a rash, whom she hands to me easily. It is a tranquil scene, earthy and ripe, this hidden place at the end of the road.

It is soon apparent that most of the residents are in one of the larger ranchos, sitting around a smoky fire. Peeking in, we see them singing softly and dancing. A few are sprawled on the clay floor, facedown, passed out. We've arrived in the midst of a fiesta, Calzada whispers to me. A local girl has recently menstruated for the first time, and so the community has spent the day drinking chicha fuerte, a brew made from fermented corn. As we watch, a woman and a boy lift a comatose mud-caked man off the ground and drag him home. Two women from inside the rancho follow them to the doorway, smiling. Aside from a few furtive looks, they ignore us almost entirely.

It wasn't like this the year before, when Calzada first came here.

There is no English-language record of what happened to Chepo's Kuna community in 2005, save the one you are reading now. The mosquitoes that hatched from Chepo's stagnant puddles, the edges of the lake below, in the open-water cisterns, had gone on a rampage. Contaminated with the most malevolent malaria parasites known to humankind in their spittle, they alit on the exposed and unclad Kuna around them. By the time Calzada and his team arrived, nearly half of the settlement was fevered, terrified, immobilized in their hammocks.

After days of triage, Calzada brought samples of the Kuna's infected blood back to his lab at the Gorgas Institute to analyze. The most common malaria in this part of Panama is the relatively benign vivax strain, caused by malarial parasites called Plasmodium vivax. Instead, Calzada identified parasites called Plasmodium falciparum, which are more commonly found in sub-Saharan Africa. Worse, this was no regular strain of P. falciparum, but a particularly nasty one that had evolved resistance to standard antimalarial drugs, a trick the parasites may have picked up somewhere in Southeast Asia. Malaria experts around the world had been tracking the spread of this bug for years. At Chepo, Calzada had discovered its northernmost beachhead.

There was precious little evidence, when we first arrived in Chepo, of the village's connection to modern industrial life. In one rancho, I saw a battery-powered radio, but other than that, we might have been in the preindustrial world: there were no toilets, no running water, no electricity. But then, as the rain steadily turned the dirt lanes between the ranchos into mud, impromptu streams formed, ferrying Chepo's hidden debris to the lake: a blue plastic sandal, a crushed orange juice container, a small gas can, and a shopping bag came bobbing down the hill. We were, after all, less than two hours' drive from a boisterous city of three million, a center of international commerce through which passes 5 percent of the world's trade. The scene of malaria's malevolent homecoming in this secluded settlement cast its shadow over the very doorstep of the global economy.

The 2005 epidemic at Chepo did not occur in a vacuum. On the contrary, between 1998 and 2004, malaria cases in Panama quadrupled. And globally, malaria's death toll has grown inexorably since 1981.

In 1995, Europe suffered ninety thousand cases of malaria. Then, in 1996, military troops in war-torn Afghanistan sparked a malaria epidemic across Central Asia. Soon, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkey suffered malaria outbreaks. By 2003, Plasmodium had preyed on ten times more people in Central Asia than just a decade before, and a tsunami of people carrying the parasite from Africa and Asia began showing up in Europe. Today, eight times more malaria patients arrive at clinics and hospitals across Europe than did in the 1970s, and back then, most of the Plasmodium imported into Europe was of the vivax strain. Now, nearly 70 percent is the deadly P. falciparum.

These days, mosquitoes infect between 250 million and 500 million people with malaria every year, and close to 1 million perish. Equally shocking is the sheer length of malaria's tenure upon us. Humans have suffered the disease for more than 500,000 years. And not only does it still plague us, but it has also become even more lethal. That's quite a feat for a disease we've known how to prevent and cure for more than a hundred years. During that same time, we've vanquished any number of similarly once-commanding pathogens, from smallpox to the plague, and have come to expect nearly complete control over newer pathogens, such as SARS or avian flu. The few that slip through our fingers, such as HIV, are the rightful subjects of anguish and soul-searching.

Yet despite the fact that we've known about malaria since ancient times, and have the drugs, killing chemicals, and know-how to avoid it, something about this disease still short-circuits our weaponry.

After dropping Calzada off, I headed back to my rental cottage along the banks of the canal, where I spent the evening reviewing my notes. The cottage was on stilts, and cooled by ceiling fans, but the window screens were old and sagging, bent and giving way from the window frame. Every morning in Panama I would awaken with some unexpected swelling from the mosquitoes' nighttime blood feasts: under my eye, on my eyelid, on the palm of my hand. Smashed mosquitoes, glued to the surface with their own internal juices, dotted the walls.

A flimsy mosquito landed gently on my forearm. A familiar spike of rage rose as I watched, incredulous, as the insect prepared to puncture my skin with her proboscis. How dare she! Instinctively, my hand snapped up.

Somewhere inside that cold-blooded, brittle body lurked entities whose exertions explained the making of rich and poor, sick and healthful. My hand came down a bit slower for the passing thought, and I brushed the mosquito away like a crumb. Her delicate legs snarled together, pitching the insect's body forward at a steep angle. Mangled, she skittered off my arm awkwardly as I watched, my vestigial Jain sensibilities slightly horrified. Finally she reached the precipice, where she somehow took flight and vanished.



Terrie Taylor is one of the world's leading experts on pediatric malaria. Since the 1980s, she's spent six months of every year inside malaria's epicenter in central Africa, unraveling the mysteries of a disease that takes the lives of three thousand African children every day. Taylor meets me at the airport in Blantyre, a 500,000-strong city in southern Malawi, at the beginning of the 2007 rainy season. Suffering an average of 170 bites from malaria-infected mosquitoes every year, between 40 and 70 percent of the entire populace of malaria-plagued nations such as Malawi harbor malaria parasites in their blood. In her fifties, Taylor wears long loose skirts and keeps her frizzy brown hair parted in the middle. She starts talking straightaway, as if we've known each other for years, grabbing my shoulder and making gently irreverent cracks. She marches through the airport waving and calling out greetings to nearly everyone we pass.

The air in Blantyre, as we exit the airport, is scorching and heavy with humidity. Soon the rains will start, and the public hospital where Taylor works will be full of frightened parents proffering their limp, fevered children. During a typical malaria season, the research ward where Taylor works admits 250 malaria-infected children, of whom between 25 and 40 will die. And yet despite the passage of decades, being separated from her new husband (who is back home in Michigan), the oppressive heat, and the inevitable malaria deaths she will most certainly witness, Taylor exudes excitement. She's more like an avid camp counselor at the beginning of summer than a doctor about to minister to an epidemic. She extols the friendliness of the staff at Blantyre's ramshackle airport, the beautiful views along our drive, the easy-to-clean halls of the hospital. Perhaps this is her coping method, I think to myself. Or perhaps not. For Taylor is a scientist, too. In a matter of days she will venture into the beating heart of the malarial beast she's stalked for decades. As with Captain Ahab and the whale, there's a certain giddy anticipation to it.

Most pathogens mellow as they age. It's enlightened self-interest, as the theory goes. Diminishing virulence is a superior strategy for survival. It doesn't make much sense for a pathogen to rapidly destroy its victim — a dead body just means it's time to move on. Take measles and smallpox, for example. In Europe, when those pathogens first emerged, they were probably reckless killers, taking millions of lives. The survivors learned how to withstand the diseases' ravages, though, and in time both measles and smallpox settled into being unremarkable childhood illnesses, felling scores only when encountering virgin populations, such as those in the New World of the fifteenth century.

Which begs the question as to malaria's tenacity and continuing malevolence. Malaria has been plaguing humans in Africa for some five hundred thousand years, with the first encounters between human, mosquito, and malaria parasite probably occurring around the time our ancestors discovered fire. Malaria existed in Africa before then, too, feeding on the birds, chimps, and monkeys that lived in the canopy. We've had plenty of time — our entire evolutionary history, in fact to adapt to malaria, and it to us. Or, at least, to devise tools and strategies to blunt its appetite. And yet, despite the millennia-long battles between us, malaria still manages to infect at least three hundred million of us — that is one out of twenty-one human beings on the planet — and kills nearly one million, year after year. As an extinguisher of human lives, write the malariologists Richard Carter and Kamini Mendis, malaria historically and to this day "has few rivals." It remains essentially wild and untamed, despite its great antiquity.


Excerpted from The Fever by Sonia Shah. Copyright © 2010 Sonia Shah. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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