Why Malaria Has Returned to the United States

mosquito with malaria

When we think of the world’s deadliest creatures, our minds often conjure images of fearsome predators like tigers, great white sharks, or venomous snakes. However, the truth may surprise you. The title for the most dangerous animal on Earth goes to a minuscule creature weighing a mere fraction of a gram—smaller than an M&M—and easily swatted away by a raindrop. Yes, you guessed it right, it’s the humble mosquito.

Mosquitoes may not possess the ability to devour humans like sharks or tigers, but they play a crucial role as “vectors” in spreading various diseases. Among these diseases, malaria stands out prominently. When a mosquito of the Anopheles species bites a human, it not only feeds on blood but also leaves behind some of its saliva, which can carry disease-causing organisms. Malaria, for instance, is caused by a single-celled parasite called Plasmodium. Shockingly, in 2020 alone, there were over 240 million reported cases of malaria, resulting in approximately 627,000 deaths, with the majority stemming from mosquito bites.

While we often associate malaria with tropical regions like the Amazon rainforest or sub-Saharan Africa, it is worth noting that the United States faced its own battle with the disease in the past. In fact, a survey conducted in 1933 revealed that up to thirty percent of local populations in the Tennessee River Valley were affected. Malaria was also prevalent in war zones during World War II. The seriousness of the situation prompted the establishment of the CDC (formerly known as the Communicable Disease Center), primarily to combat malaria.

In 1947, the CDC and health agencies from thirteen Southeastern states launched the National Malaria Eradication Program. As part of this initiative, over 4.65 million homes were sprayed with insecticides by the end of 1949. The impact was immediate and remarkable. In 1947, there were 15,000 new reported cases of malaria in the United States. The following year, that number dropped to 2,000, and by the end of the subsequent year, malaria was considered eradicated within the country. This achievement was made possible through the widespread implementation of insecticides, drainage programs, and the installation of door and window screens—a true triumph for public health.

However, recent events have reignited concerns about malaria within the United States. While we have not seen cases of local transmission for two decades, five cases originating from Florida and Texas have been reported in recent weeks. It is important to note that the majority of malaria cases in the United States were contracted by individuals while traveling abroad, and local transmission is an uncommon occurrence.

Several hypotheses have emerged to explain the resurgence of local malaria cases. Many experts point to warmer temperatures resulting from climate change as the primary factor. Rising temperatures and increased rainfall create more favorable conditions for the spread of malaria and other tropical diseases. Mosquitoes thrive in warmer climates, provided there is a water source available for egg-laying, and they become less active in colder temperatures.

Another hypothesis suggests that the recent cases, caused by a less severe strain of Plasmodium known as P. vivax, may have gone unrecognized as signs of malaria by the affected individuals or their healthcare providers until the symptoms worsened. It is crucial to emphasize that even cases with milder symptoms should be treated as a medical emergency, according to the CDC.

Interestingly, one alternative hypothesis, though speculative, suggests that the resurgence of malaria in Texas and Florida could be attributed to aliens crossing the border. These individuals often come from countries where malaria is prevalent and may unknowingly carry the parasite.

While this idea may seem far-fetched, it does bear some consideration. By examining a CDC map of malaria-endemic regions, one can identify numerous nations that send large numbers of people across the southern border into the United States. Millions of individuals from Central America, Haiti, Venezuela, and other endemic regions have entered the country without undergoing medical screenings, unless they exhibit visible signs of illness.

But how could aliens introduce malaria to the United States? Many malaria carriers are asymptomatic—they harbor the Plasmodium organism in their liver without showing obvious signs of illness. It is only when the parasite enters red blood cells that symptoms become evident. If these carriers are bitten by mosquitoes after arriving in the United States, the infected mosquitoes can then transmit the disease locally. The more carriers present in the population, the higher the likelihood that a mosquito will bite one and spread the organism to others.

Thankfully, malaria is not directly transmitted from human to human through the air or casual contact. Effective treatments, including hydroxychloroquine, are available, and the duration of treatment depends on factors such as the type of malaria, the region of infection, the patient’s age, pregnancy, and the severity of the illness. With early treatment, full recovery can be expected.

While there is no reason to believe that a major malaria outbreak will occur in the United States, it is important to acknowledge potential contributing factors to its re-emergence. Open borders come with inherent risks, and malaria transmission can be one of them.

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