Consider the following scenario: you’re enjoying a rooftop cookout with your friends. You peel away a vaguely triangular shred of label off the bottle in your hand, the conversation around the grill devolves into a light debate about antisemitic camgirls, and as the sun dips below the horizon you wonder which if any of the people you swept right on are not bots trying to sell you antidepressants. There’s a vague itch and a slight bump on your shin, that you scratch dutifully. Your host announces that the pseudo-hamburgers are done, and you grab the bag of At Least 45% Bread buns off the table you were leaning on.
Fast forward a week, when you wake up sick with what feels like the flu. You’re crashing in a friend’s closet between jobs, so you text him that you’re sick and try to ride it out. The symptoms, however, do not go away. Alternating fever, chills, and a head full of fuck evolves into nausea and vomiting unlike the usual of food poisoning. This is because there is a swarm of microscopic parasites hiding in your blood cells. Soon, they shred enough of those cells and leave the molecular wreckage in your veins, causing your skin to turn yellow and itch like hell. It becomes painful to move, and your piss is distressingly dark. When your eyes twitch around in your skull before you go into a coma, they’ve gotten to your brain.
This is malaria, a disease caused by the Plasmodium falciparum microorganism and its relative protists. It is transmitted from person to person by hitching a ride in the saliva glands of mosquitoes. You contracted it not on a trip to sub-Saharan Africa or southeast Asia, but in an outdoor party in New York City, in the year 2080.
One of the many expected consequences of global climate change will be the spread of diseases once limited to the tropics of the world to regions beyond them. Increasing temperatures and anomalous rainfall are expected to make conditions favorable for the growth of these diseases more widespread. Even though Malaria had been all but eradicated in North America and Europe by the year 2000, current models estimate that they will come roaring back within 60 years.
Thanks to research performed by Dr. Matthew P. Thomas and his crew, we now know those scientific models are somewhat wronger. You may get to die shivering in a closet while your blood is destroyed even sooner than previously imagined!
Their recent article, ‘Exploring the lower thermal limits for development of the human malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum,‘ details a series of experiments the team conducted on mosquitoes carrying the P. falciparum parasites to determine the effects of temperature on those microorganisms’ development. Not only did the team observe that the falciparum parasites could develop and become infectious within the mosquitoes in a temperature range sometimes lower than previously determined, but they became infectious sooner than previous models suggested – sometimes radically so.
These experiments consisted of exposing two species of mosquitoes, An. stephensiand An. gambiae, to blood sources infected with the P. falciparum parasites. The mosquito species were kept separate, and then further divided into groups kept in separate temperature controlled containers. Each of those containers was set to a different temperature between 14C and 20C. Some of those containers had their temperatures change, becoming warmer and cooler in cycles to better simulate daytime temperature changes in the wild.
After allowing some time for the P. falciparum organisms to develop enough to be infectious, mosquitoes were then captured and dissected over many days. The mosquitoes organs were harvested and examined for the presence of infectious parasites.
Previous experiments demonstrated that the the P. falciparumorganisms couldn’t mature within the mosquitoes at temperatures at and below 16C. While this was true in these experiments if the temperature stayed at 16C, when it fluctuated lower and higher, the parasite still managed to mature to an infectious state.
But wait, it gets worse! Not only can P. falciparum survive and mature in somewhat lower temperatures than expected, but they also matured faster than previous models predicted. In two instances, it took less than half the time calculated.
While these findings suggest that existing malaria outbreak models based on previous research may need to be modified and their projections updated, the experiments conducted are not without their limitations and shouldn’t be taken as decisive. There are other species of mosquito and Plasmodium microroganisms that were not tested, and there could be unaccounted for environmental factors which might further affect things like mosquito survival and Plasmodium transmission.
Further research is necessary to get a more accurate picture about how much the future is going to fucking suck.
Scientific research, technological development, and sound public policy had hurled the scourge of infectious disease out on its ass. We in the cradle of empire, in the 21st century, are largely ignorant and untouched by the plagues of yore.
However, numerous trends threaten to reverse this achievement with a vengeance. Climate change induced disease outbreaks are just one factor among many: vaccine refusal, antibiotic resistance, pharmaceutical market failure, the gutting of public health institutions and initiatives by neoliberal forces, and the undermining of basic research all threaten to make our lives as perilous and miserable as a playthrough of The Oregon Trail.
J. Domenico is a chemist by training and a writer by moral necessity. He’s performed research in academia and the private sector and has been burned by both. Now he howls into the dark as the world melts down.
Idro, Richard & Marsh, Kevin & John, Chandy & Newton, Charles. (2010). Cerebral Malaria; Mechanisms Of Brain Injury And Strategies For Improved Neuro-Cognitive Outcome. Pediatric research. 68. 267-74. 10.1203/PDR.0b013e3181eee738. https://dx.doi.org/10.1203%2FPDR.0b013e3181eee738
Waite, Jessica & Suh, Eunho & Lynch, Penelope & Thomas, Matthew. (2019). Exploring the lower thermal limits for development of the human malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum. Biology Letters. 15. 20190275. http://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2019.0275
Caminade, Cyril & Kovats, Sari & Rocklöv, Joacim & M Tompkins, Adrian & Morse, Andrew & Colón-González, Felipe J & Stenlund, Hans & Martens, Pim & J Lloyd, Simon. (2014). Impact of climate change on global malaria distribution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 111. 3286-91. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1302089111