Sunday, August 30, 2009

Malaria Outbreak in Palm Beach, Florida

Americans living within the borders of the United States feel removed from the problem of malaria. Every so often it's mentioned in passing: Ashton Kutcher buys mosquito nets for children in Africa. The Gates Foundation makes a donation. But, this deadly parasite can infiltrate loosely-screened borders of any country. Malaria only needs to hijack the immune system of a single individual in order to start an epidemic.

In 2003, Palm Beach saw an outbreak of malaria. Victims ranged in wealth and status, profession and hobbies. All but one contracted malaria without having set foot outside the United States. "The hospital staff, inexperienced in working with the disease, failed to correctly identify the infections" (Packard 6). Health-care providers did not "consider malaria as a possible cause of fever among patients who have not traveled," but who experience "alternating fevers, rigors, and sweats with no obvious cause" (CDC). Calling it pneumonia and prescribing antibiotics, the hospitals sent the patients home, where they continued "to infect local mosquitoes" (Packard 6).

Anopheles mosquitoes (the ones that transmit malaria) swarm within the United States. "Palm Beach County was riddled with drainage ditches and canals, which were prime habitats for" mosquitoes (Packard 6). Between 1992 and 2003, "11 outbreaks" including at least twenty cases of "locally acquired mosquito-transmitted malaria" were reported to the CDC (CDC).

It only takes one infected individual to start an outbreak. Patient zero [the first case] may not show outward signs of the disease. This carrier could be on a regiment of symptom-suppressing medications, be recently infected, or even be immune to malaria.

In the particular case of the Palm Beach outbreak, the CDC "concluded that a migrant worker or international traveler might have been involved" (Packard 6). That traveler was not identified. The Palm Beach outbreak "demonstrated the potential for reintroduction of malaria into the United States despite intense surveillance, vector-control activities [vector=agent], and local public efforts to educate clinicians and the community" (Packard 6). It is impossible to prevent malaria from penetrating the US borders when so much of the world suffers heavily from this disease.

Malaria is a global disease. It will only be controlled by a united global assault dedicated to eradication.

CDC. "Local transmission...". MMWR Weekly. 26 Sept 2003.

Packard, Randall M. The Making of a Tropical Disease: A short history of malaria. John Hopkins: 2007.

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