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MALARIA: Obstacles and Opportunities
where malaria is present. Many, at the recommendation of their travel agent or physician, take antimalarial medications as a preventive measure, but a significant number do not. Tourists and other travelers who have never been exposed to malaria, and therefore have never developed protective immunity, are at great risk for contracting severe disease. Ironically, it is not the infection itself that poses the biggest danger, but the chance that treatment will be delayed because of misdiagnosis upon the individual's return to the United States. Most U.S. doctors have never seen a patient with malaria, are often confused by the wide array of symptoms, and are largely unaware that malaria in a nonimmune person can be a medical emergency, sometimes rapidly fatal.
Prior to 1950, malaria was the major cause of death in the central highlands of the African island nation of Madagascar. In the late 1950s, an aggressive program of indoor insecticide spraying rid the area of malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and malaria virtually disappeared. By the 1970s, confident of a victory in the battle against malaria, Madagascar began to phase out its spraying program; in some areas spraying was halted altogether. In the early 1980s, the vector mosquitoes reinvaded the central highlands, and in 1986 a series of devastating epidemics began. The older members of the population had long since lost the partial immunity they once had, and the younger island residents had no immunity at all. During the worst of the epidemics, tens of thousands of people died in one three-month period. The tragedy of this story is that it could have been prevented. A cheap antimalarial drug, chloroquine, could have been a powerful weapon in Madagascar, where drug resistance was not a significant concern. Because of problems in international and domestic drug supply and delivery, however, many people did not receive treatment and many died. In the last 18 months, surveillance has improved, spraying against the mosquito has resumed, and more effective drug distribution networks have been established. Malaria-related mortality has declined sharply as a result.
Malaria, once endemic in the southern United States, occurs relatively infrequently. Indeed, there have been only 23 outbreaks of malaria since 1950, and the majority of these occurred in California. But for each of the past three years, the San Diego County Department of Health Services has had to conduct an epidemiologic investigation into local transmission of malaria. An outbreak in the late summer of 1988 involved 30 persons, the largest such outbreak in the United States since 1952. In the summer of 1989, three residents of San Diego County—a migrant worker and two permanent residents—were diagnosed with malaria; in 1990, a teenager living in a suburb of San Diego County fell ill with malaria. All of the cases were treated successfully, but these incidents raise questions about the possibility of new and larger outbreaks in the future. Malaria