Malaria is one of the deadliest diseases causing a million global deaths every year. While a lot of research is being conducted on ways to curb the mosquito-carried menace and eradicate it in the future, a team of scientists in New Zealand decided to look at the past. According to their research, the disease has been infecting humans for more than 7000 years, much earlier than previously thought. The study carried out at Department of Anatomy, University of Otago has been published in Scientific Reports.
“Until now we’ve believed malaria became a global threat to humans when we turned to farming, but our research shows in at least Southeast Asia this disease was a threat to human groups well before that,” said lead author Dr Melandri Vlok.
According to World Health Organization, 229 million cases of malaria were reported around the world in 2019, with 67 per cent of malaria deaths in children under the age of 5 years.
In archaeological record, malaria is invisible. But the after-effects of the disease can be seen in prehistoric skeletons.
It is known that specific genetic mutations cause the inheritance of Thalassemia, a devastating genetic disease that in its milder form provides some protection against malaria. Though we know genes for malaria were historically (and currently) prominent in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, the exact origin of malaria remains unknown. But the evidence collected from a 7000 years-old fossil from a hunter-gatherer archaeological site from Vietnam suggests the presence of thalassemia; thousands of years before the region transitioned to farming.
Most experts have believed farming practices that led to stagnant pools of water may have led to mosquitos breeding frequently.
However, such insects were present in South-East Asian forests much before the evolution of agriculture.
The study also involved an investigation by a team of researchers led by Professor Marc Oxenham, University of Aberdeen as well as researchers from Australian National University (ANU), University of Otago, the James Cook University, Vietnam Institute of Archaeology and Sapporo Medical University. Professor Hallie Buckley from the University of Otago was first to notice the thalassemia in slides taken from the hunter-gatherer specimen in 2015.
Keywords- Hunter-gatherer Vietnam, Hunter-gatherer with thalassemia, Hunter-gatherer malaria, malaria in ancient humans