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How malaria destroyed the Roman Empire

I am Plasmodium vivax, a small protozoan carried about by Anopheles airlines to every man in every humid city that sleeps in the sunset. In fact, our transportation system is so effective that once nearly three-quarters of the known world was serviced by our pilots, which was surprising seeing that only pregnant females could apply for the position. Well, political correctness aside, I’ve led an interesting life to date. If you read the Iliad again you will realise that it was me who struck down the Greek forces at the siege of Troy. And it was the Greek soldiers that carried me across Asia, why they say I was even directly involved in the death of Alexander the Great. But it was not just the Greeks who battled the constant problems of chronic malaria and let a Golden Age disappear from their midst, because less people know I was involved in the fall of The Roman Empire.

In the 1st Century BC, during the years of Julius Caesar’s campaigns, over sixty percent of the population of Rome was incapacitated with chronic illness that I had spread in their midst. The great Caesar himself and many of his soldiers fell to the ravages that I brought. Columella, in his twelve volume work on farming and agriculture theory wrote about how fatigue from chronic malaria greatly curtailed efforts of the farmers to produce enough food for the Roman population, which was growing in the period. At one time, all of Campagna, which produced fresh vegetables for the city had to stop production as I had not left an able bodied man to continue supplies. The stricken farmers went to Rome for help and carried me along with them. The infant mortality soared and life expectancy sharply declined. It is written that the bad Roman airs ‘mal aria’ are supposed to have plagued the city for another five hundred years. In 165, Galen himself, tried to treat people that I had visited and accordingly recorded his efforts. The epidemic raged for fifteen years and took the life of the Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Few know by the fourth century most of Roman’s soldiers started to be recruited from lands, far in the north, where I found it too cold to live in. It is thought by myself, that my weakening influence, more so than any alleged decadence of the Roman citizens caused the fall of the Great Empire. Refugees came and went, and by the time of the Crusades, malaria had gripped most of the continent. And if that wasn’t enough, it followed the new colonialists across the Atlantic, all the way to America. Before long, over half the population of New England suffered from chills, fevers and exhaustion caused by a condition known as the ague. Well, that was just me with a new American accent. By the time of the Revolution, I had spread my wings to such an extent that George Washington grew seriously worried about the condition of his troops. The rumour went around that the bad air in the cities was causing the illness and millions decided to throw caution to the wind and head for the plains of the Mid West. But they should have known better, for in 1822, nine hundred of the thousand citizens of Columbus, Ohio were shaking with the ague. By 1833, ninety thousand of the one hundred and fifty thousand settlers around the town were infected.

And when the grandsons of the shaking Mid West towns grew up and went to war themselves, to fight the Japanese down in the islands of the far off Pacific, I was waiting and took more lives than human gunfire. The same thing happened when they moved into Sicily despite people knowing that Quinine makes me sick.

About the turn of the century, a medical officer by the name of Charles Laveran was soaking up the heat of the Algerian sun and noticed me waving at him from under his microscope. For some reason he suspected that I had been secretly hitching around on Anopheles airways for the past few thousand years. Luckily, his friends were still into the four humours theory of life and it took another seventeen years before British physician, Ronald Ross found me stowing away inside an Anophelean baggage compartment. Well. a call went out on all the airlines until an Italian zoologist, G.B. Crazzi found out that I only travelled with Anopheles, a sprightly pilot who needs human blood every three days to nourish her young. She only feeds at night, I’ll tell you it’s the last time we’ll take any more staff from that Transylvanian Airline. Well before long my game was up, although it is documented that in the year 1948, I visited over three hundred thousand people of which about three million died. And that’s only an average, because in some countries such as India as many as thirteen million people were stricken annually, with the total population of Ireland dying each year. There is no doubt about it, my influence has changed the direction of the world.

Source: Free press release by Dr Patrick Treacy

by S. C.
07 june 2009, Food Notes > Miscellanea

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