Malaria is caused by a parasite called Plasmodium that causes red blood cells to stick together. Malaria can be fatal when too many blood cells stick together and can’t carry enough oxygen through the body, including the brain. Over 200 million cases of malaria occur worldwide each year with most deaths (nearly 1 million) occurring in the African Region. Malaria is the leading cause of death for children under five in sub-Saharan Africa, where it also affects many women who get too sick to work or take care of their children.
Originating in Africa, malaria is now found on six continents. It has been recorded for 4,000 years. “Malaria” comes from the Italian word meaning “evil air” because people once thought stinky swamp air caused the disease. Now we know that people get malaria when they are bitten by an infected mosquito, and mosquitoes breed in stagnant water.
Engineers have long worked with scientists and doctors to eliminate malaria. Before the 1960s, engineers helped by ensuring water systems didn’t leak and become standing water and by developing bed nets (also called mosquito nets). Bed nets are large pieces of mesh fabric that fit over a bed to keep mosquitoes away from people while they sleep.
In the 1940s, engineers contributed to the development of DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane), a chemical that is very effective in killing bugs. But since DDT was used so much and so heavily said bugs developed resistance to it while other creatures who came in contact with DDT one way or another died. After a few decades, the harms of DDT resulted in banning its use in many places. Today DDT is considered a potential carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) for humans. Because malaria causes so many deaths, DDT is approved for indoor use to eliminate house mosquitoes in affected areas.
Malaria is complex and Plasmodium can change to resist a treatment after time. Also, it’s been discovered that mosquitos can develop resistance to insecticides intended to kill them. No one approach can eliminate malaria. In the future, many different people, including engineers, must work on their ideas and coordinate with others to reduce malaria deaths. Because malaria is most deadly in the poorest countries, it’s very important that engineers consider cost.
Engineers continue to combat malaria by creating new chemical combinations that will remain effective over time, genetically engineering mosquitoes that are unable to breed or breed offspring that die before reaching maturity. Engineers are developing laser technologies to “zap” mosquitoes, improving public water infrastructures, and developing the best and least expensive mosquito netting.
One of my ideas is to genetically engineer a mosquito that does not like human blood. Completely eliminating mosquitoes takes the food supply away from creatures that eat them. Of course, that could lead to Plasmodium developing malaria in non-human creatures. Another idea is to create technology to detect which mosquitoes are carrying Plasmodium and eliminate that from the mosquito. Many people can cooperate and financially support the fight against malaria.