The single-celled killer outwitting mankind


You know you’re into something special when you open a book randomly and find something compelling on every page.

Sonia Shah performs a great balancing act in delivering the complexities of malarial science while keeping the storytelling brisk and riveting.

The long history of the disease also provides her with rich pickings and some great anecdotes like that of Oliver Cromwell.

He spurned one of the best and most effective treatments of the day, the ground-up bark of the cinchona tree, because it had been brought to Europe by Jesuit missionaries.

Anti-Catholic sentiment saw him dismiss it as “Jesuit’s Powder” and at 59 he died,  20 years after its introduction from South America. Had he tried it and survived would Britain’s constitutional monarchy ever have made a return?

Another tale recalls sufferer Sir Walter Raleigh who, when captive in the Tower of London, prayed not to have a malarial fit on the scaffold in case people thought he was shivering with fear.

And harking back to Roman times, there’s a story about Julius Caesar being struck down with malaria while, paradoxically, the disease-riddled swamps around the imperial city kept besieging foreign armies at bay.

There’s more to this book than mere anecdotes though. There’s much to think about in Shah’s view of how the disease affected the culture and demography of the United States, creating “deep cultural prejudices…that persist to this day”.

In documenting previous efforts to thwart the disease, she relates how drugs have been misused, strategies ill-thought out and quick fix “solutions” have been anything but.

Environmental disturbance, climate change and mass movement of people have all been exploited by the parasite which continues to plague mankind.

Attempts to combat the illness have occupied some of the world’s finest minds and have cost billions of dollars but it continues to survive and thrive.

The lesson of the book is that there is no silver bullet, no single solution; nets, drugs, new technologies and good intentions cannot succeed on their own.

Without accompanying improvements to countries’ infrastructure in areas like schools, roads, clinics, housing and good governance any short-term gains will be swiftly overturned and newer, more virulent forms of malaria will return with a vengeance.


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