Malaria – a King’s Disease

Thirty-four centuries ago, when preparing the body of the 20-year old Egyptian king for the afterlife, the embalmers probably could not imagine the later worldwide interest and curiosity in this young royal – a life after death that has been in the spotlight since 1922. Much speculation and research has centered King Tutankhamun’s death.

tut31.gifArchaeology Magazine reports that, “new evidence of Tutankhamun’s reign has emerged that shows he was much more active than was thought, and may have led military campaigns against the Syrians and Nubians before he died,” as exemplified to the left where Archaeology Magazine shows Tutankhamun as a sphinx, trampling Egypt’s traditional foes, a Syrian or Asiatic and a Nubian (picture by Araldo De Luca).

“The recent reexamination of Tutankhamun’s body suggests that his death was the result of an accident that injured his leg, leading to a fatal infection.” Coinciding with this report is publication of medical evidence that King Tut’s death may have been more complicated.

The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that for the past two years “royal mummies underwent detailed anthropological, radiological, and genetic studies as part of the King Tutankhamun Family Project.” Hawass and colleagues found that …

These results suggest avascular bone necrosis in conjunction with the malarial infection as the most likely cause of death in Tutankhamun. Walking impairment and malarial disease sustained by Tutankhamun is supported by the discovery of canes and an afterlife pharmacy in his tomb.

The researchers discovered “genes specific for Plasmodium falciparum” in several of the mummies. Over 3,000 years later, Egypt is almost free from malaria. Dahesh and colleagues discuss that, “remnant residual foci are still localized in two districts; Sinnuris and Faiyoum, Faiyoum Governorate.”

The herbal apothecary found in King Tut’s tomb also suggest treatment for malaria. Whether malaria itself was the ultimate cause of demise has been questioned. Mark Rose of Archaeology.org says, “I suspect that they are overdoing it a bit” when researchers portray the king as a weakling who was finally knocked out by malaria. We need to know more about malaria transmission and ecology in the area many years ago to give a better conclusion.

If the king’s domain was in an area of stable transmission, it would be unusual for an adult to succumb to malaria, having developed some immunity over the years.  Had the area been one of seasonal or epidemic malaria, a bout of the disease could have been the final blow.

Transmission may have been seasonal following the annual floods. Bernard Ziskind observes that ancient texts show the Nile valley to be particularly susceptible to malaria. He quoted Herodotus who reported around 430 BC that Egyptians living in marshy areas used nets for fishing by day and protection from mosquitoes by night.

More than three thousand years of malaria transmission is a sobering thought. We have been trying to eradicate it for less that 100 years.  We have more tools to fight the disease than the herbs and fishnets of ancient times, but King Tut’s new diagnosis should remind us that this ancient disease will not go quietly.

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