Nearly 30 years ago, I attended the labor of a Vietnamese woman on an island off the coast of Thailand. The woman had malaria. She died a few hours after giving birth to her stillborn child.
That experience has never left me. It has fueled in me a passion for global health, and especially for alleviating suffering and death from tropical diseases such as malaria.
It is also worth remembering, however, that malaria isn’t just a disease that happens in faraway places. It happens here in the United States as well.
A new study in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene finds that between 2000 and 2014, some 22,000 people were hospitalized in the U.S. for malaria, at a cost of more than $500 million. This is despite the fact that the U.S. eradicated malaria transmission more than 50 years ago.
More Americans are traveling to places where malaria is common, but they are not using preventive measures, such as anti-malaria medications and mosquito repellents, which are very effective. These travelers become infected, bring the disease home with them and get sick.
Travel-related malaria can also lead to outbreaks here in the U.S. if travelers returning with the infection are bitten by a mosquito. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. had 63 local malaria outbreaks between 1957 and 2015. (It’s interesting to note that the CDC started as the Office of Malaria Control in War Areas during World War II after outbreaks in Texas.)
We live in an increasingly interconnected world — connected by travel, commerce, trade, communications and ideas — where disease can be transmitted as easily as hopping a plane. There’s no such thing as an “American disease” and a disease someplace else. We’re all at risk and we’re all affected.
It is true that, compared with other parts of the world, the U.S. gets off lightly with respect to malaria, which globally sickens millions of people and kills hundreds of thousands a year.
But it is wrong to consider ourselves separate and apart from suffering caused by malaria and other tropical diseases. Global health concerns are important national concerns as well.
As health practitioners and policy experts, we must make a compassionate commitment to protecting the health of both the people of the United States and the world community at large. Instead of moving from crisis to crisis — focusing on Zika when that’s a problem and West Nile when that’s heating up — we need a strategic approach that includes increased investment in tropical disease research and efforts.
A strong U.S. investment in tropical medicine and global health is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do. When we protect people in countries as far away as Thailand, we protect ourselves as well.
Patricia Walker is president, American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
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