01 October 2002

Of Malaria and Men

This morning's Washington Post reports that there are currently two cases of an unspecified strain of malaria in Loudon County, Virginia.

"We want to know if we have it here or if it's just an extremely rare,
isolated case," said Roy Eidem, a Fairfax County environmental health

There's an interesting undertone of hysteria through the article, as if the Chesapeake were suddenly being confronted with a disease that it has never seen before. The article fails to recognize that during the colonial period, both Virginia and Maryland suffered from endemic malaria. Moreover, malaria was instrumental in shaping the social structures of these two colonies.

Darret Rutman showed in his 1976 article "Of Agues and Fevers: Malaria in the Early Chesapeake" that malaria most likely arrived on this continent with Europeans. The climate and geography of the Tidewater made malaria right at home. Over the course of the seventeenth century, thousands of West Africans were imported as slaves, bringing with them more virulent forms of the disease. Malaria was so common that new European arrivals invariably suffered from it in some form; the process was labelled "seasoning" by those who survived it. Rutman further posited that malaria deaths contributed significantly to the demographic composition of the colonial Chespeake, which in turn affected the way colonial society developed.

"Is this a new occurrence?" asked John Neely, a mosquito expert and Clarke
official. "Or is this something that has always been here and we're just now
doing the tests and finding it?"

Well, Mr. Neely, it isn't a new occurence at all. In fact, malaria was integral to the experience of thousands of colonial Virginians. It is a shame the article failed to place malaria in its historical context. As the article points out, "health officials have assumed that a world traveler or two had brought the malaria to the region and had been bitten by a mosquito, and the insects had then passed on the disease." I think this is probably unlikely, given the disease's history.

You can see the article here.


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