Today is a day to acknowledge the power of an ancient nemesis of humans. Barely two millionth of a meter in length, this microscopic animal kills more human beings than any other creature.
It is so destructive that, even though we have discovered a cure for it since 200 years, it still manages to kill half a million people every year. Even after waging a global war costing nearly 6 billion dollars every year to fight it, we are still without a solution for this, arguably biggest malaise known to humanity.
This villainous animal is plasmodium, causative parasite of malaria. Huge mortality attached to malaria has forced world health organization to recognize 25th April as world malaria day to communicate its seriousness to the entire world.
Plasmodium is one of the trickiest devils known to medical sciences, as it is an animal far more complex than bacteria or virus. It has defeated all efforts of developing a vaccine because it has ability to change its surface proteins. But, thankfully, plasmodium’s life-cycle provides us with another target in form of an insect.
As plasmodium can move between people only with the aid of a mosquito, its mitigation holds the real key to control malaria. Science, through discovery of insecticides like DDT, had almost won our battle against mosquitoes; but the war is not won probably because of you and me and our irrational love for water.
Water is the real key to the malaria problem because mosquito requires freestanding water to lay eggs. Malaria has entered human civilization because of our dependence on water. Benefits of staying close to water must have been so great that we have allowed malaria to evolve its stranglehold around us.
Unfortunately, this then-gainful proximity appears to have hardwired our brains to appreciate and enjoy presence of water. Though there is no real need for us to live close to water today, the ancient wiring in our brain has assigned aesthetic quality to water in our psyche, converting water into a design element that urban planners use to beautify our cities. So, on one hand, scientists work hard to defeat mosquito, our designers aid it by building water-retaining structures that help them breed.
The situation is getting dangerously worse because of a new phenomenon, i.e. global warming. With temperatures rising year after year, its greatest beneficiaries are insects like mosquitoes. Warm weather and year-round availability of water has allowed mosquitoes to escape the seasonal cull that dry weather used to bring, making vector-borne diseases the biggest health challenge our cities face today.
As we allow mosquitoes to prosper, we are also giving an opportunity to parasites like plasmodium and viruses they carry to interact with more people and evolve new drug-resistant variants, making the job of scientists even more difficult.
Though malaria has been the greatest killer of tropics, Indian cities have failed to understand the threat it poses. As our urban development doesn’t cognize malaria as an issue requiring attention while taking urban planning decisions, we are slowly but surely heading for a disaster.
On the WMD, the need of the hour is to understand that the water-retaining structures are potential WMDs, i.e. weapons of mass destruction. Today, we are perfectly capable of storing the water that we need for use miles away and bring it on need bases, hence we can and must reevaluate the idea of using water for beautification as this beauty may come at a cost that we may not be able to afford.
On world malaria day, let us become aware of the potential threat and pray that this awareness percolates into the decision-making apparatus of city administration.
DNA: 25/4/16 (Ahd & Bhopal)