The Historical Ecology of Malaria in Ethiopia
Deposing the Spirits
Reviewed by Janet Lee (Emdeber 1974-76)
JAMES MCCANN, PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, and Associate Director for Development, African Studies Center, Boston University is the author of the recently published The Historical Ecology of Malaria in Ethiopia based on over a decade of field research in Ethiopia funded in part by a five-year Rockefeller grant, a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship, and a Boston University start-up grant.
This highly readable work provides an in-depth overview of malaria, the most deadly and debilitating vector-borne disease in Africa. The author examines the major players, both good and bad, and the forces that have had an impact on the disease including the Italians and the Derg. He also discusses the impact of ecology on the disease, the effects of living in the highlands and the lowlands, as well as the introduction of maize as a contributing factor. And of course we cannot ignore the starring character, the mosquito.
McCann cites ancient Ge’ez texts for early references to the deadly disease and Italian documents related to Fascists Italy’s 1935–36 invasion of Ethiopia and its need to fend against the disease. He interviews local residents about the myths and traditions surrounding causes and local remedies and cures for malaria, the “shivering fever.” Throughout he gives ample credit to the work of his Ethiopian counterparts who are making strides in the prevention and treatment of the disease.
The author makes important scientific concepts understandable to the lay reader while describing cause and effect of transmission of the disease to humans. New land uses, migration of populations, and increasing resistance to sprays and drugs are contributing factors to the spread of the disease. Of particular interest was the introduction of maize, a New World crop, to the African ecosystem. Who would have thought that the pollen of an innocuous plant like corn could wreak such havoc in the health of a population?
Until reading this history, I believed that a mosquito was a mosquito was a mosquito. In the chapter, entitled “She Sings,” that is at times quite light-hearted, McCann describes the mosquito in all her strength and glory and the role that she plays in the transmission of the disease.
Despite best efforts to eradicate the deadly disease through the use of pesticides such as DDT, vaccines, or anti-malarial medications like chloroquine, malaria continues to rear its ugly head.
McCann’s prognosis for the future? Investments in control of the mosquito population, public education and monitoring the habitat will remain essential. Malaria will continue to be a local disease of place or ecology. High tech methods (biomedicine for a vaccine or a genetically engineered mosquito) may be less effective than high touch (commitment to public health, monitoring local outbreaks, and quick response to mini-epidemics.)
RPCVs of Ethiopia and Eritrea will find this a fascinating tome as they reflect on their own experiences with anti-malarial medications, bed nets, and DDT, then liberally distributed at the Peace Corps office. I look forward to picking up some of his prior works including the wonderfully titled Maize and Grace: Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500-2000 and Stirring the Pot: a History of African Cuisine.
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End of Issue 21 — August 2015