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Lecture addresses social impact of malaria

By Jill Chipman ’14

March 6, 2014

On Thursday, Feb. 27, Dr. Paul Linser, professor of anatomy and cell biology at University of Florida’s Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience, gave a Levitt Lecture entitled, “Malaria: Its Historic Impact on Mankind and the Battle to Stop the Devastation.” The focus of the talk was to address not only the biological side of malaria, but also the social implications of current treatment and prevention techniques.

With 690,000 deaths last year, malaria is currently the number one killer by disease according to the World Health Organization.  The primary means of disease transport are mosquitos, making areas in the tropics and sub-tropics more susceptible. The first known case of the disease was found in an amber encased mosquito dating back 20 million years. The mosquito was not carrying human malaria but likely bird malaria, and was found in South America. Linser suspects that malaria in Africa started much earlier.

Linser addressed the disease’s ability to rapidly evolve, and how society’s methods of understanding, treating and preventing the disease must evolve at an equally fast rate. Society is currently left with two options to address malaria: they can control the agent through which the disease travels control the disease itself. Most often the chosen method is a reflection of the geographical location and existing infrastructure.

Cutting-edge techniques exist to genetically modify mosquitos and release them into the wild to understand how they cope. Linser noted that this is a highly unlikely option, as it presents significant practical and ethical issues. There are also simpler options including bed nets and pesticides.

The widespread use of DDT pesticide used in the 1950s was another method Linser discussed. The practice has since been discontinued in the United States but is still used in other parts of the world. More simply, treated bed nets seem to be one of the best ways to impact a large number of people on a relatively low-cost system.

Linser spent a significant amount of time discussing malaria in Africa. He stressed that it is not as simple as handing a person a bed net and telling them to use it. Often cultural barriers exist and only the patriarch uses the net while really, it is children who should be using it. Similarly, many people in Africa still operate on the approach that malaria is caused by bad spirits. Linser noted that it is incredibly difficult to teach the community that an underlying scientific cause of the disease exists. Nonetheless, the bed net program has been relatively successful in Africa and similar regions due to a lower level of infrastructure.

Linser concluded his talk by mentioning several key points, constant awareness and vigilance being a top priority for any disease, not only malaria. Often, a lessening of protection against a disease can lead to a sudden resurgence.  Of equal importance is the fact that there will never be one single cure-all for malaria. The type of care and prevention enacted depends highly upon the region, its infrastructure, and its culture.

Linser is optimistic that with proper measures taken, malaria can be well controlled and managed worldwide. He explained that this can and likely will take generations to accomplishbut stressed that our generation will be on the forefront of truly understanding malaria’s prevention and treatment.

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