Disease as History and Ecology: Malaria
McCann, James C., The International Journal of African Historical Studies
Disease as History and Ecology: Malaria
The Making of a Tropical Disease: A Short History of Malaria. By Randall M. Packard. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. Pp. 296. $24.95.
One could well describe Randall Packard's book The Making of a Tropical Disease as a magnum opus, a capstone effort that follows his earlier book on tuberculosis in South Africa (White Plague, Black Labor, 1989), his later perspectives on HIV/AIDS, and his current status as director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for the History of Medicine. This book is path breaking in a number of ways, most especially as a comprehensive view of malaria, the world's most deadly infectious disease, and one whose origins and greatest impacts have been in Africa. His study's historical scale is global in geographic terms, but also in its engagement with the methods and data of biomédical fields like epidemiology, immunology, and entomology. Packard frames his study within a rubric of the history of medicine, though its goal and its methods might, in fact, fit even more comfortably in the field of environmental or ecological history, a genre label he chose not to invoke explicitly in the text. Might an acknowledgement of environmental history better place his topic with a broader audience than history of medicine? Or would that suggest a distinction without a difference?
Packard's introduction, eight chapters, and conclusion emphasize both historical depth and the geographic range of malaria. His introduction, "Constructing the Global Narrative," offers a few counterintuitive malaria case narratives of the disease from such places as Archangel (Russia), Palm Beach (Florida), and West Bengal (India) to illustrate the geographic range of the disease and the sometimes incongruence of its appearance in surprising social, climatic, or geographic circumstances. Those cases are anomalies he has chosen for effect. Here also is where he lays out an overall thesis (pp. 12-13), i.e., that malaria transmission over time and in particular places has been a direct consequence of human ecology as a dynamic force that stimulated seasonal endemic transmission in some areas and in other places the unexpected "perfect storm" [my term] of ecology, politics, and human settlement that flare up as shocking and deadly epidemics. Studying disease in these settings would seem to invite environment as a contrastive canvas, though Packard does not adopt that approach explicitly.
In Chapter 1, "Beginnings," Packard lays the foundation of the science of malaria in ways that are clear, but also allows readers to appreciate the complexities of malaria as an interaction of vector, parasite, and human sufferers, as well as its dynamism over time. These biological and ecological factors include the origins of malaria in what ecologists might call "edge effects" in changing human ecosystems. He demonstrates this phenomenon by describing the disease's context in Central Africa's Congolia rain forest, the evolution of the life cycle of the protozoan genus Plasmodium as the disease organism, and the emergence of several distinctive species of that organism (e.g., P. falciparum and P. vivax). He then recounts the even more fascinating story of the co-evolution of the specific vectors-mosquitoes of the genus Anopheles-that carry the disease from host to new victims, especially the A. gambiae, a type that prefers human blood (as opposed to livestock or birds) and is the most efficient carrier of the disease-causing agent. Packard's accounts of the science here are complex, accurate, and necessary because the bioscience sets both the actors and the stage. Perhaps most importantly, Packard (p. 25) identifies the disease's key factor for transmission-vectorial density. He makes it clear to the reader that the density and age of the mosquito population is the most critical factor in explaining where, when, and why malaria transmissions occur. Malaria outbreaks are thus a conjuncture of events, not an accident of capricious nature or the evil intent of female mosquitoes. …