National Geographic on malaria

2007-07_NG_cover.jpgGiven that malaria is more or less the preeminent case of intelligent design in Michael Behe’s The Edge of Evolution, I think everyone would find it interesting to read the July 2007 cover story of National Geographic, which is on malaria and the history of attempts, failures, and hopes of eradicating it. The story focuses on Zambia, where the infection rates are sometimes over 100% (i.e., people are infected more than once a year). I have a somewhat personal interest in this since when I was seven my family went to Zambia for a year, as my dad was on sabbatical. We all took chloroquine weekly – a nasty-tasting drug to a seven-year old, mind you. And despite religiously taking the nasty-tasting drug, I got malaria in the end anyway (the chloroquine-resistant kind, naturally), came down with it on the plane ride back to the states, and then, sick as a dog, I was paraded around undiagnosed before baffled American doctors who had never seen malaria, until someone had the bright idea that maybe I had picked up the most common disease in Africa. More nasty medicine cured it, but that was an early lesson in evolution for me, let me tell you.

The NG article makes several important points: (1) Malaria isn’t like viruses or bacteria. It is a parasite and has 5,000 genes and elaborate, devious strategies for dodging the immune system. No one has ever developed a successful vaccine for a parasite, so it is not surprising that this is so tough for malaria. (2) Malaria has been around far longer than humans, considering that primate, cows, birds, lizards, and pretty much everything else terrestrial seems to have one or more malaria species specializing on it. (3) The article, for once, actually sensitively discusses the issue of DDT use, and notes accurately (for once) that environmental groups and governmental agencies were not and are not opposed to intelligent use of DDT for malaria control. However, it still has one scientist repeating the anti-environmentalist propaganda that a (mythical) DDT ban killed tens of millions of children in malarious countries. This extremely serious claim is completely unsupported by any study as far as I know. See DDT Ban Myth and Putting Myths to Bed. (4) The best remedies may be the simplest ones. The best ideas in the article seem to be (a) bed nets and (b) a regular vaccine consisting of (here’s the clever bit) killed malaria parasites to get the body’s immunity up and running (malaria is most dangerous to children who have not developed an immune reaction, or to people who have not been infected for awhile and have a weaker immune response). If these are in place then mosquito control and medical attention and drug treatment can curb the crisis situations without being overwhelmed by mass infection. It’s not perfect but it may be a substantial improvement over attempts to eradicate the disease which have failed again and again.