Every so often a book appears about malaria. About its history, great discoveries, and the historic and current battle against it. But sometimes there's a book that goes the extra mile by providing a critical outside view on what we all try to accomplish. This is what you get when reading 'The Fever: How malaria has ruled humankind for 500,000 years', written by Sonia Shah.
When reading 'The Fever' I thought more than once about another great book on malaria 'The Malaria Capers', published back in 1992 by Bob Desowitz. Like Desowitz, Shah begins her journey with field trips, in her case to Panama and Malawi, and provides a refreshing account of malaria in the real world from the perspective of people suffering daily from the disease.
She then turns to the biology of the mosquito and parasite, and shows that a great deal of research has gone into writing this book. From the global spread of the disease to the intertwined relationship humans, mosquitoes and parasites have evolved, all is written in a format that is easy to grasp for newcomer malariologists as well as old-timers.
A vast array of stories are highlighted. From the construction of the Panama canal to the devastation caused by malaria in ancient Rome. From the changing ecologies of malaria in the USA to the story of quinine. To the insider, these stories will be known, to the novice these will be eye openers.
And then Shah moves further. She highlights the unethical works of companies selling counterfeit drugs, threatening the limited arsenal of still potent drugs at hand. The most revealing chapter is the one titled 'The Karma of malaria'. In it, Shah highlights the daily scourge of the disease, and the fact that malaria is, by many, considered 'a stray dog'. Always around, sometimes causing disease, and if you're lucky you pass a season without it. If you do, you opt for a quick fix - 70% of all anti-malarial drugs in Africa are not administered by doctors and nurses but bought directly from street vendors and market sellers. Traditional medicine is the first choice for 80% of all cases, and only when the disease nearly kills, do hospitals become an option.
Diagnosis is still far from optimal. Fever, any fever, is considered malaria. Figures that the war staged against malaria is being won are nothing more than data juggling, Shah argues, backed by prominent malariologists whose names are not mentioned. The data and figures provided by Shah are proof of her great investigative journalism style.
'The Fever' is full of interesting details, and is, eighteen years after Desowitz' book, an excellent update of where we all stand. Highly recommended.
'The Fever' will be published by Sarah Crichton Books in July 2010. 291 pages + index.