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History of Malaria in the USA

It’s hard to believe that there was a time when every state in America except Alaska was malaria endemic. There is a long history of malaria in the USA dating back to the 15th Century when it first appeared in the country until today where it still affects local residents.

Malaria parasites have existed longer than mankind, most likely originating in recorded history in Africa with fossils of mosquitoes. The first known case of the disease in America is believed to be after the arrival of explorer Christopher Columbus in 1492. Together with his crew, Columbus was infected with the disease during his voyage, although the malaria didn’t survive as the vector borne mosquitoes died off in the cold climate.

In 1607 the disease established itself and became epidemic in the Jamestown settlement as the colonies increased. European settlers and their West African slaves transmitted the disease to the Native Americans and it quickly spread to the Carolinas, Maryland, Georgia, Alabama and Florida. The disease then proceeded to spread west to Ohio, Missouri and the Gulf of Mexico. During this time, malaria was epidemic in much of Europe and the continual flow of workers arriving from England to America aided the spread of the disease.

Changes in living also contributed to the establishment of malaria in America as people settled in towns and villages. Inhabitants were living in closer quarters, sharing space with domesticated animals and travelling less thus passing the disease onto family and neighbors. The growing of rice in pools of stagnant, shallow water commenced in the Carolinas, creating an ideal habitat for mosquitoes. Poor sewage and drainage also produced an environment for the parasites to live in and breed.

It wasn’t until 1906 during the construction of the Panama Canal that the spread of malaria was recognized as a significant problem after 21,000 of the 26,000 workers were affected by the disease. During this time the Center for Disease Control (CDC) was established in an attempt to control the malaria throughout America.

Around the same time, approximately 500,000 American soldiers deployed to malaria-endemic areas during World War II were infected with the disease. It is believed over 60,000 American soldiers died from the disease while fighting during the African and South Pacific campaigns. This ramped up the effect to prevent malaria from infiltrating further within the country. The military began to use in the pesticide DDT to control both malaria and the bacterial disease, typhus.

It wasn’t just the slaves, the poor or soldiers who contracted the disease. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and the 18th president of USA, Ulysses S. Grant all suffered from malaria. By 1951 malaria was effectively eliminated in the country which was considered a global success, particularly considering by the year 2000, more than 100 countries throughout the tropical and subtropical regions recorded malaria in endemic portions. Unbelievably, almost half the world’s population still live in areas where the disease is prevalent.

The CDC reported 63 outbreaks of malaria throughout the United States between 1957 and 2011. In these cases, the local mosquitoes are thought to have been infected by people who had acquired the parasite in endemic areas before transmitting the disease to local residents.

The World Health Organization estimates that in 2012 malaria was the cause of 207 million clinical episodes and 627,000 deaths across the world. Today in America, there are approximately 1,500 – 2,000 cases of malaria reported annually, most of whom have recently traveled to an infected region. The occurrence of malaria is continually monitored throughout the USA to ensure the people infected by the disease doesn’t increase. You can help assist with the elimination of malaria by contacting us today.