China has finally conquered 🍊 malaria, after fighting the disease for more than 70 years. The World Health Organization (“WHO”) on Wednesday awarded the world’s most populous nation a malaria-free certification.
In the 1940s, the country reported 30 million cases a year, with a mortality rate of 1%. The Chinese have been working to eradicate the disease ever since.
Malaria is a serious blood disease that can be fatal. It is caused by a parasite that commonly infects a certain type of mosquito. The insects then transfer the infection to humans.
The WHO certification is a significant achievement for China, which is the first country in the Western Pacific to receive it. More than 40 countries and territories have eradicated malaria, although it remains a significant health issue in Africa. In 2019, more than 94% of the world’s malaria cases were on that continent, with most victims of the disease being children. Malaria kills about 400,000 people every year.
Malaria was such a serious concern in China that leader Mao Zedong in 1967 established a secret military project, called Project 523, to address the disease. As part of Project 523, Chinese scientist Tu Youyou discovered artemisinin, the core compound of the most effective anti-malarial drug. In 2015, she was awarded a Nobel Prize for her work.
🍊 Extra Juice: Malaria
What is Malaria?
Malaria is a serious and occasionally fatal disease caused by a parasite that commonly infects a certain type of female mosquito, called an Anopheles, which feeds on humans. People who contract malaria typically become extremely sick with high fevers, shaking chills, and flu-like illness.
How is malaria transmitted?
It is transmitted when a mosquito bites an infected person and draws blood, which contains microscopic malaria parasites. When the mosquito then bites another person, those malaria parasites transfer from the bug’s saliva into the newly bitten person and into that person’s bloodstream. Because the malaria parasite is found in red blood cells of an infected person, malaria can also be transmitted through blood transfusion, organ transplant, or the shared use of needles or syringes contaminated with blood. Malaria may also be transmitted from a mother to her unborn infant before or during delivery, which is called "congenital” malaria.
Is malaria contagious?
Not through the air, like COVID-19. It can be transmitted only via an infected mosquito or in the other aforementioned ways.
Does malaria exist in the US?
Yes, about 2,000 malaria cases are diagnosed in the US every year. However, the great majority of these cases come from immigrants or travelers from parts of the world in which transmission is frequent, such as sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia.
How many cases of malaria are found worldwide?
The World Health Organization estimated that 229 million clinical cases of malaria occurred in 2019. That year, 409,000 people died of the disease, most of them children in Africa. Because malaria causes so much illness and death, the disease is a great strain on the health care systems and economies of countries with high caseloads. And because many of these countries are among the world’s poorer nations, malaria creates a vicious cycle of disease and poverty.
Who is most at risk of dying from malaria?
People who have little or no immunity to malaria, such as young children and pregnant women or travelers coming from areas with no malaria, are more likely to become very sick and die. Poor people living in rural areas and who lack access to adequate health care also are at greater risk for the disease. As a result of all these factors, more than 90% of malaria deaths occur in Africa south of the Sahara desert, and most of these deaths occur in children under 5.
Is there a malaria vaccine?
No. Attempts to produce an effective malaria vaccine, as well as vaccine clinical trials, are ongoing. The problem is that the malaria parasite is a complex organism with a complicated life cycle. The parasite has the ability to evade human immune systems by constantly altering its surface, and developing a vaccine against these ever-changing surfaces is extremely difficult.
Is it safe to travel to countries where malaria is still a problem?
Travelers to areas where malaria is endemic are advised to use mosquito repellent and bed netting at night. They should also take an anti-malarial drug in advance of their travel.
How did the US eradicate malaria, and when did that happen?
Malaria transmission in the United States was eliminated in the early 1950s through the use of insecticides, drainage ditches, and the power of window screens to keep bugs from entering homes.
How was malaria conquered in other parts of the world, and now in China?
A powerful and effective drug therapy was devised by Chinese medical researcher Tu Youyou, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2015 for her discovery.
The therapy came from a covert operation in China called Project 523, originally launched in 1967 during the Vietnam War. At the time, Maoist China was in conflict with modern science and scientists, but the ruling Chinese Communist Party nevertheless knew that it needed the country’s scientific elite to continue studying and researching medicines and vaccines. So Mao Zedong developed the undercover project to allow researchers like Tu to work with traditional folk remedies and modern medicine in the pursuit of a malaria treatment.
A compound called artemisinin, derived from a Chinese herb extract, was one of several hundred substances that Tu tested as a possible antimalarial treatment. By 1971, Tu and her team’s tests showed that the nontoxic artemisinin, also called qinghaosu, was 100% effective against malarial parasites in animal models.
Was this therapy the only thing China used to combat malaria?
No. Like the US, China used insecticides, and in particular insecticide-treated mosquito nets, to control the spread of malaria. By 1988, more than 2.4 million such nets were distributed throughout China. Using the netting and medical treatments, by 1990, China had reduced its malaria cases by 95% from its peak of roughly 30 million in the 1940s and 1950s.