Malaria has caused more than one-half of human deaths since the Stone Age. Despite having a known cure for the disease, this “ancient killer” infects 300 million people and claims the lives of 1 million annually.
This is according to prize-winning author and investigative journalist Sonia Shah, who spent five years researching malaria for her book on the topic.
Shah, who is spending this semester as the James H. Ottaway Sr. distinguished professor of journalism, addressed an audience of about 100 New Paltz students, faculty and community members with riveting stories of malaria on Monday evening in the CSB auditorium.
Shah’s interest in studying malaria comes from her childhood fear and hatred of mosquitos. As a young girl traveling to India to visit her cousins, Shah said mosquitos were constantly biting her while her family remained unscathed.
“The mosquitos always knew I was an outsider,” she said. “And I hated the mosquitos for this.”
Malaria was given its name by people in the ancient Roman Empire, who believed that it was contracted in places with foul smelling air. The word ‘malaria’ comes from the Latin words for ‘bad’ and ‘air,’ ‘mal’ and ‘aria,’ Shah said. She explained that malaria has been around since humans first evolved from their ape ancestors, and has played a large role in shaping human history.
The disease affects communities socially and culturally. Shah visited a village in Malawi where 70 to 80 percent of the population had malaria. She said in areas with high rates of malaria, such as Malawi, a child at the age of two would have already experienced 12 or more episodes of malaria. Because of this, the people in these areas are not as concerned with extricating the disease as she might have originally hoped. She said, “In a person’s lived experiences it’s a normal thing,” comparable to an average American contracting the common cold or flu. Because of this, 99 percent of the world’s cases of malaria go undiagnosed.
It also negatively affects the economy of infected communities. Shah said that in a community that is infected with malaria, GDP growth is constricted by 1.3 percent a year. Malaria often affects rural areas, especially during harvest season. Farmers who are at home sick with a fever, instead of out in the field during the harvest, are put in an economically burdensome situation, she said.
Although billions of dollars have been spent battling malaria, billions more will need to be spent to keep up the fight. Shah said that experts claim that around $6 billion needs to be spent annually if we want to extricate malaria.
Shah concluded her lecture by saying she believes through empowering local communities and continually supporting malaria research that it is possible for humans to extricate the disease once and for all.
“It’s a moving target, so we have to keep studying it,” she said. “We just have to find the political will, so nobody has to die from the bite of a mosquito.”
A short Q&A and book signing reception followed the lecture.