The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years review: Journey of a resilient bug

The malarial parasite is pretty much like the nearly immortal cockroach. Despite humongous effort on the part of humans to rid their planet of the disease causing parasite and its carriers, it has thrived, even prospered, growing with every drug thrown at it, deflecting and feinting to win successive bouts. Sonia Shah serenades both the parasite and its vector, mosquitoes, in an interesting journey that spans dimensions of space and time to gauge what endowed them with formidable strength that would help them adapt and keep going.

The Fever could have easily been a ponderous book, one you had to lay down ever so often, and struggle to pick up again. But it is not. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Shah has a racy read, dragging us breathless across continents across different periods in history to find out what fuels the malarial parasite. While initially published in 2010, the Indian edition released this year comes with an introduction pitching the book in an intimate context most of us might be familiar with: huddling under a mosquito net, and yet woken up by an incessant buzz and arms and feet dotted with tiny red bumps.

Mosquitoes infect between 250 million and 500 million people every year, Shah begins, setting out the scope and scale of the task she has undertaken to describe — the 500,000-year reign of malaria. Right through the book is a sense of mild awe at encountering a most resilient bug. “ Something about this disease still short circuits our weaponry,” she says. And later on, “ One by one, malaria defanged each drug thrown at it. The more effective and widely used the drug, the faster the parasite subjugated it.” The awe, we realise at some point, is justifiable, as we travel along. Equally inspiring is the entire range of anti-malarial activities that the world has unleashed on the hardy parasite.

Woven into the narrative are explanations of complex scientific, medical processes in diagnosis, cure and resistance rendered so they don’t trip the pace, sympathetic weaving in of social, political, climactic and economic realities that impinge directly and indirectly on the fever. Malaria is undoubtedly deeply implicated in poverty, she argues, quoting the economist Jeffrey Sachs on the need to look at anti-malarial activity as ‘economic investment’.

A pressing need, indeed, is to stop the cycle that allows genus Plasmodium to be transmitted. As Shah argues in her well-researched book, for as long as warm blood beckons, the mosquito carrying the malarial parasite will feed.

The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years;

Sonia Shah,

Penguin Random House,


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Printable version | Jun 22, 2021 10:30:43 PM |

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