Bridges: Malaria haunted South for generations

Staff Writer
Waxahachie Daily Light
Ken Bridges

It became a common sight across many communities in Texas and the South in the 1940s and 1950s. Trucks would rumble down city streets spraying pesticides to eradicate mosquitoes. It was one piece of a larger puzzle that included research into vaccines and medications. And it was all a part of a major effort to eradicate a dangerous disease that had haunted the South for generations, the deadly scourge of malaria.

Malaria is a disease most known to emanate from the tropics. It is a disease caused by a single-celled parasite called a plasmodium which is usually transmitted by mosquitoes. The illness causes high fever, chills, fatigue, nausea, severe muscle aches, and even death. It was first discovered in Africa, and it then spread to Europe. It is believed to have arrived in the Americas with the expedition of Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto in 1541.

Certain medications emerged in an attempt to treat it, most notably quinine. It was initially developed by Native Americans in Peru and Ecuador from the bark of cinchona trees. It was used as early as the 1630s to treat malaria in southern Europe and became a common medication for the disease in the 1700s and 1800s even though it could have serious and even dangerous side effects.

The death toll from malaria climbed steadily across the South in the 19th century, and economic damages from lost work and health costs rose to tens of millions of dollars annually. Initially, doctors believed that the cause of malaria was some contamination of the air or with some combination of the heat. The “bad air” idea gave the disease its name, “malaria,” and actually encouraged early efforts to develop air conditioning. Though the connection between mosquitoes and malaria was long suspected, it was Dr. Zaphney Orto’s 1882 experiments in Northeast Arkansas that showed a clear connection.

The next step seemed clear – eradication of mosquitoes, a completely despised pest, would eliminate malaria. Cities such as Austin and San Antonio imported bats to combat malaria in the 1910s. Certain species of bat, particularly the Mexican Free-Tail Bat, eat mosquitoes, which made the suggestion quite reasonable. While thousands of mosquitoes were consumed, the overall results were mixed at best. A large colony of bats still resides in Austin’s Town Lake area.

Cities were also encouraged by health authorities to drain swamps and bogs and divert some waterways to minimize mosquito breeding grounds. Residents were warned against allowing standing water to remain in their yards as well.

Mosquito eradication campaigns continued and public health leaders urged residents to begin installing screens in doors and windows to block mosquitoes. Screens and mosquito nets were also recommended for porches, as many families slept on their front porches during the summer to escape the oppressive heat.

In 1935, there were 25,000 cases of malaria reported in Texas, with more than 1,500 in the Houston area alone. By the 1940s, progress was finally starting to be seen. Though there were significant drops, cases were still commonly reported across the state through the 1950s.

Between 1947 and 1953, the federal government began sponsoring a project to spray the pesticide DDT throughout southern communities to control mosquitoes. The effort was successful as mosquito populations dropped and the numbers of new cases dropped.

However, problems developed with some of these early efforts. DDT was discontinued as the more serious effects of the pesticide became known. Quinine fell into disuse because of its sometimes extreme side effects and as more effective medications became available, such as doxycycline, chloroquine, and mefloquine. However, efforts to find a reliable vaccine have remained elusive as malaria is caused by neither viruses nor bacteria and the plasmodium parasite can build its own resistance to these vaccines and medications.

Today, most cases in the United States emerge from people visiting overseas bringing cases into the country. The Mayo Clinic reports that malaria still kills more than 440,000 people each year. Though science had eliminated malaria in the United States, it still remains a major challenge in other parts of the world.

Special Note: No one should ever take any anti-malarial medication without the express consent of a doctor. Though these medications can be life-saving for certain conditions, they are only safe when used properly. Medications used improperly can themselves cause serious illness or injury. Only use prescription medications strictly as prescribed by a licensed doctor.