What to Observe on October 12th? Malaria’s Arrival in the Americas

Controversy exists about what historical event should be observed in the USA on 12th October. Ernest Faust explained many years ago that, “there is neither direct nor indirect evidence that the malaria parasites existed on this continent prior to the advent of the European conquerors,” while at the same time in the 16th through 18th Centuries, malaria was common in England, Spain, France, Portugal and other European nations that arrived in the “New World.” Initially, with the first voyage of Columbus the European explorers and settlers brought the disease, primarily Plasmodium vivax, while the slave trade brought P. falciparum.

National Geographic in its May 2007 issue provided the story “Jamestown, The Real Story.” This article reported that, “Colonists carried the plasmodium parasite to Virginia in their blood. Mosquitoes along the Chesapeake were ‘infected’ by the settlers and spread the parasite to other humans.” Thus malaria became one of many imported diseases that decimated the indigenous population. The spread of P. vivax in Jamestown was not surprising since the settlement was “located on marshy ground where mosquitoes flourished during the summer.”

Recent research has shown that the “Analysis of genetic material extracted showed that the American P. falciparum parasite is a close cousin of its African counterpart.” This research has documented two genetic groups in Latin America, related to two distinct slave routes run by the Spanish empire in the North, West Indies, Mexico and Colombia and the Portuguese empire to Brazil. Indigenous and remote rural populations of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela and Brazil remain at risk today.

In the South American continent the  native American population might have brought Melanesian strains of P. vivax before the Europeans arrived, but colonizers brought new strains from both Europe and Africa, as well as P. falciparum. Clearly, human migration has played an important role in malaria parasite dissemination through the Americas.

But back to the North American Continent where the USA is observing the historical implications of 12th October, Mark Blackmore reminds us that, “Anthropological and archeological data provide no indication of mosquito-borne diseases among the indigenous people of North America prior to contact with Europeans and Africans beginning in the fifteenth century” (Wing Beats Volume 25 Winter 2015). The spread of malaria by European colonizers is certainly not something to celebrate today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.