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8 Surprising Facts About Malaria

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Malaria kills roughly half a million people each year, and it infects hundreds of millions. Here are eight facts about the disease that may surprise you!

1. The Seven Dwarfs Helped Fight It

Disney made an animated film in 1943 called The Winged Scourge featuring the Seven Dwarfs. It was the first in a series of animated propaganda shorts dealing with public health issues, and the only to feature established Disney characters. I'll summarize this ten-minute video for you: mosquitoes transmit malaria, malaria is bad, so let's kill mosquitoes. With help from dwarves. (Snow White doesn't make an appearance.)

Note that around 0:45 in the video, we see that malaria is still established in the United States in the world map. Which leads us to...

2. It Wasn't Eliminated in the U.S. Until 1951

The typical definition for a disease being "eliminated" in a country is that no new cases arise there for three years. In the United States, 1951 was the year when we officially became malaria-free. 1951 isn't that long ago—it's only about three generations. If your parents or grandparents watched I Love Lucy when it premiered, they lived in a U.S. still plagued by malaria.

3. DDT Was the Primary Weapon in the U.S.

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DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) was seen as a miracle pesticide for killing mosquitoes, the vectors that spread malaria. Its pesticidal properties weren't discovered until 1939, but as soon as they were, the chemical was sprayed in massive quantities, both at home and abroad. Between 1947 and 1949, the CDC estimates that 4,650,000 homes in the U.S. were coated, on the inside, with DDT. That's in addition to huge outdoor spraying operations.

Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Müller won a Nobel Prize in 1948 for his discovery of DDT's pesticidal properties. In the 1940s and 1950s DDT was used around the world in huge quantities, though it eventually led to DDT-resistant insects. Since that time, organizations like the Innovative Vector Control Consortium have been established to identify a variety of sustainable insecticides.

Here's a short film showing DDT spraying in San Antonio. People of the era actually liked DDT for the most part, as it was quite effective at killing mosquitoes, but also killed fleas and other pests:

For another impressively dated DDT film, check out this 1945 War Department film. It's intense. Today, while pesticides including DDT are still used around the world, bed nets, anti-malarial drugs, and vector-control tools are major parts of malaria elimination efforts.

4. It's Only Transmitted by Female Mosquitoes

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Malaria is caused by a handful of Plasmodium parasites. Those parasites are transmitted by mosquitoes in the Anopheles genus—and actually, only the females. Why the females? Because only female mosquitoes drink blood (they enjoy delicious mammalian blood to feed their developing eggs); males are comparatively tame, feeding on nectar from plants. There's one more factor that makes female Anopheles mosquitoes creepily vampire-like: they tend to feed from dusk until dawn.

5. It Drove the Creation of the CDC

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Originally known as the Communicable Disease Center, the CDC was formed to fight malaria. It replaced the Office of Malaria Control in War Areas, a WWII-era agency that did exactly what you'd expect. The CDC was headquartered in Atlanta rather than Washington, D.C. because the South faced the worst threat from malaria. After a series of name changes, the "CDC" eventually became known as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

6. It Was Even a Problem in Jamestown

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English colonists unknowingly brought malaria to North America way back in 1607. The colony at Jamestown, Virginia was the first infection point, and the disease spread across the continent from there, killing as it went. It was even a significant source of deaths in the Civil War.

7. Its Name is Italian

"Malaria" comes from the Italian mal'aria, meaning "bad air." Romans believed that swamp fumes cause the illness, though indeed it was the swamp-dwelling mosquitoes that were to blame.

8. Eight Presidents Had It

At least four popes died from malaria, and at least eight U.S. Presidents suffered from malaria at various times. Here's a roundup from the Impatient Optimists blog (edited for clarity):

1. George Washington first contracted malaria at age 17 in Virginia, and while he did not die from the disease he suffered from recurring bouts throughout his life.

2. Abraham Lincoln also got the disease while growing up [in Illinois].

3. James Monroe got malaria when he visited a particularly swampy area of the Mississippi River. Bouts of the disease flared up for years afterwards.

4. Andrew Jackson contracted malaria while on the Seminole military campaigns in Florida.

5. Ulysses S. Grant suffered from frequent bouts of malaria in the late 1850s while living on a farm outside of St. Louis.

6. James A. Garfield acquired malaria at age 16 in Ohio.

7. Theodore Roosevelt came down with malaria after a visit to the Amazon rainforest. Although the bout did not kill him he returned to the U.S. weakened physically and spent many years in his bed.

8. John F. Kennedy contracted malaria while in the Solomon Islands during World World II where he served as a PT boat captain.

In addition to world leaders, lots of other adventurous folks have suffered from the disease, including Errol Flynn, Mahatma Gandhi, Ernest Hemingway, Sir David Attenborough, Christopher Columbus, Michael Caine, Jeremy Piven, Anderson Cooper, Chris Matthews, and Mother Teresa. (This list could go on all day, but you get the idea.)

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5 Fun Facts About Health, Toilets, Muppets, and Presidents
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We've been running a series about global health since August 2013. Here are five of the most interesting facts we've uncovered since then.

1. There is a "World Toilet Organization" Run By "Mr. Toilet"

Jack Sim goes by "Mr. Toilet." He left the business world to found the WTO—no, not that one, the World Toilet Organization—in 2001. Starting that year, Mr. Toilet declared November 19 "World Toilet Day," and since then has been on a mission to bring sanitation to people in developing countries.

I urge you to drop what you're doing and watch this short video about Mr. Toilet. Yes, he says "shit" a lot. And it's awesome.

In addition to founding the World Toilet Organization and establishing World Toilet Day, Mr. Toilet is working to convince the world to abandon flush toilets, because they waste water. Sim reminds us that flush toilets waste up to 22 liters of water every day. Something to think about next time you debate whether to "let it mellow."

Learn more in 5 Reasons World Toilet Day is Awesome.

2. The Seven Dwarfs Helped Fight Malaria

Disney made an animated film in 1943 called The Winged Scourge featuring the Seven Dwarfs. It was the first in a series of animated propaganda shorts dealing with public health issues, and the only to feature established Disney characters. I'll summarize this ten-minute video for you: mosquitoes transmit malaria, malaria is bad, so let's kill mosquitoes. With help from dwarves. (Snow White doesn't make an appearance.)

Note that around 0:45 in the video, we see that malaria is still established in the United States in the world map. Malaria wasn't eliminated in the U.S. until 1951.

Read more in 8 Surprising Facts About Malaria.

3. George Washington Had Tremendous Health Problems

"Life of George Washington—The Christian Death" by Junius Brutus Stearns, courtesy of the Library of Congress

George Washington is likely the founding father to have suffered from the widest variety of awful diseases, so let's review some of the worst things that happened to him. As a young man, Washington traveled to Barbados with his brother Lawrence in 1751, in an attempt to cure Lawrence of his TB with fresh air. The attempted cure failed, and George became infected with TB in the process. He also managed to pick up smallpox while in Barbados.

George Washington returned from Barbados only to come down with pleurisy, while his brother Lawrence died from TB. George also contracted malaria (see above), and later suffered from dysentery. He died at age 67 while being treated for a throat infection. The treatment involved bleeding him (32 ounces of blood removed—probably what actually killed him), making him gargle vinegar, inducing vomiting, and nearly suffocating him with a molasses/butter/vinegar potion.

Washington's struggle with disease was so epic that PBS produced an entire article describing and discussing his medical problems and how they might have been solved today. (They noted that he also suffered from diphtheria, quinsy, a carbuncle, pneumonia, and epiglottitis. Ouch. Oh yeah, and he lost his teeth to infection and decay, leaving him with just one remaining tooth upon inauguration as president. He lost that one too.)

Check our the history of presidential pain in 6 Awful Illnesses Suffered By US Presidents.

4. Cookie Monster Promotes Handwashing and Healthy Eating

In April 2013, Cookie Monster emphasized the importance of handwashing as part of an effort to promote sanitation work around the world. (2.5 billion people don't have access to toilets!) He granted an interview on the subject, conducted by the Impatient Optimists blog. Here's a snippet:

Impatient Optimists: We know you’re a cookie enthusiast. Can you tell us your cookie eating ritual?

Cookie Monster: Me cookie eating reputation precedes me. Of course me have ritual! First me wash hands. This part very important because it help keep me healthy. Me not sure exactly how long me wash, but me sing the ABCs slowly and when me get to Z, it time to rinse and then look out, om nom nom nom nom. Me also like to share me cookies with Elmo and Big Bird. Little known secret, a birdseed cookie is delicious.

Cookie Monster also famously sang in 2005 that "A Cookie is a Sometimes Food" in an effort to combat obesity. (In the song, various fruits are declared "anytime foods.") In this video, he struggles with the choice between fresh fruit and a delicious cookie:

Cookie Monster also tackled food issues with a 90s-style rap about healthy eating, complete with gold chains. "Nutrition, it really hip!" Me love it.

Read more in 13 Sesame Street Muppets That Make a Difference.

5. One Man Created Eight of the Most Common Vaccines

Image courtesy of Images from the History of Medicine

Although most people have never heard of him, Maurice Hilleman developed dozens of vaccines, including eight vaccines that you may have received. Hilleman developed vaccines for chickenpox, Haemophilus influenzae bacteria, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, measles, meningitis, mumps, and pneumonia (among many others). His vaccines saved millions of lives, and I've received a bunch of them myself! His obituary read, in part (emphasis added):

"Hilleman is one of the true giants of science, medicine and public health in the 20th century," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

"One can say without hyperbole that Maurice has changed the world," he added.

... "If I had to name a person who has done more for the benefit of human health, with less recognition than anyone else, it would be Maurice Hilleman," Gallo said six years ago. "Maurice should be recognized as the most successful vaccinologist in history."

His obituary is well worth a read, including colorful lines like: "'Montana blood runs very thick,' [Hilleman] said later, 'and chicken blood runs even thicker with me.'" (He grew up on a farm and worked with chickens quite a bit in developing vaccines.) His story is also told in the book Vaccinated: One Man's Quest to Defeat the World's Deadliest Diseases.

Read more in 5 Things You Might Not Know About Vaccines.

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How Missed Calls Amplify Farmers' Voices
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This week, Farm Radio International (FRI) announced the results of an innovative poll covering thousands of farmers. The biggest surprise was the way farmers voted: by calling a phone number and hanging up.

The survey was conducted in Tanzania, where smallholder farms (small family farms) make up around 75% of all farm production. FRI, an international radio service that partners with local stations, wanted to poll those farmers in order to help make their voices heard by the Tanzanian government. But how do you reach thousands of tiny farms spanning a whole country? In the case of Tanzania, the answer was radio talk shows and basic cell phones.

Photo courtesy of ONE / Do Agric

The Power of Radio Talk Shows and Cell Phones

Across Tanzania, there are radio stations broadcasting talk shows aimed at farmers. Those programs are already popular for the people the survey aimed to reach, so FRI partnered with five radio stations in different regions across the country. The local presenters added discussion segments to their programs dealing with the poll issues.

Radio broadcasters concluded the poll segments by asking yes/no questions, then giving out phone numbers that voters could dial into. But people generally don't want to waste their cell phone minutes on a poll, so a clever solution came into play: just call the number, then hang up. The missed call is logged, and that log constitutes a vote. This system is called "Beep to Vote," and it's free for voters because the missed call doesn't incur charges for using cell phone minutes. For yes/no questions, there was one phone number for "yes" and another for "no." A total of 8,891 smallholder farmers participated.

In addition to the "Beep to Vote" yes/no questions, the poll included a multiple-choice question that most voters responded to using SMS. Voters texted a single character ("1" for the first option, "2" for the second, and so on) to a specified phone number, and those results were tallied by computer. In addition to the SMS voting method, farmers could opt to make a voice call to an automated system, listen to the five options, and press a number to indicate their choice. 4,372 people responded to the multiple-choice question. The system was also able to send SMS reminders to voters in case they voted for one of the poll questions, but not the others.

The data was crunched in realtime using a system made by Telerivet, so poll workers could watch as votes came in. The system also checked incoming phone numbers so each phone (which roughly equates to each voter, or household) could only vote once per question.

Photo courtesy of ONE / Do Agric

Why This Matters

From a technological perspective, this poll is a brilliant example of choosing the right technology for the job. If a similar poll were conducted targeting middle-schoolers in the United States, it's likely that technologies like YouTube videos and click-to-vote within the video would be used. But for these Tanzanian farmers, the prevalent technologies are radio and cell phones. By putting them together, in a near zero-cost way, FRI was able to collect data that could influence government policies, which in turn could change livesusing just cellphones and radio.

This poll was part of a campaign called Do Agric, focused on encouraging African leaders to invest more in agriculture, in order to improve farming (and in turn, daily life) in Africa. Here's a video about the program:

When the results were announced earlier this week, Tanzania's President Kikwete said, "Action on agriculture has to be today, not tomorrow!" The voices of 8,891 farmers reached the president's ears.

For more on the survey, check out FRI's page on methodology and results.

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