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It became a common sight across Arkansas and the South in the 1940s and 1950s. Trucks would rumble down city streets spraying pesticides to eradicate mosquitoes. It was one piece of a larger puzzle that included research into vaccines and medications. And it was all a part of a major — and successful — effort to eradicate a dangerous disease that had haunted the South for generations: the deadly scourge of malaria.

Malaria is a disease most known to emanate from the tropics. It is a disease caused by a single-celled parasite called a plasmodium which is usually transmitted by mosquitoes. The illness causes high fever, chills, fatigue, nausea, severe muscle aches and even death. It was first discovered in Africa, and it then spread to Europe. It is believed to have arrived in Arkansas with the expedition of Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto in 1541. As settlement slowly increased in the eighteenth century, cases of malaria also rose.

Certain medications emerged in an attempt to treat it, most notably quinine. It was initially developed by Native Americans in Peru and Ecuador from the bark of cinchona trees. It was used as early as the 1630s to treat malaria in southern Europe and became a common medication for the disease in the 1700s and 1800s even though it could have serious and even dangerous side effects.

Mosquitoes, malaria and flooding at the community of Arkansas Post convinced early leaders of the Arkansas Territory to move the capital to what became Little Rock. The death toll from malaria climbed steadily across the South in the nineteenth century, and economic damages from lost work and health costs rose to tens of millions of dollars annually. Initially, doctors believed that the cause of malaria was some contamination of the air or with some combination of the heat. The “bad air” idea gave the disease its name, “malaria,” and actually encouraged early efforts to develop air conditioning. Though the connection between mosquitoes and malaria was long suspected, it was Dr. Zaphney Orto’s 1882 experiments at Walnut Ridge in Northeast Arkansas that showed a clear connection.

The next step seemed clear – eradication of mosquitoes, a completely despised pest, would eliminate malaria. In 1916, a combined effort by the Public Health Service and the Rockefeller Foundation sought to reduce the mosquito population. Crossett was the site of these initial experiments to drain swamps and bogs and divert some waterways to minimize mosquito breeding grounds. Residents were warned against allowing standing water to remain in their yards as well. These efforts reduced the mosquito population by an estimated 72% in one year in Ashley County, and malaria rates fell with it.

Arkansas had one of the highest malaria rates in the nation in the 1920s and 1930s, with most in the counties near the Mississippi River. Mosquito eradication campaigns continued and public health leaders urged residents to begin installing screens in doors and windows to block mosquitoes. Screens and mosquito nets were also recommended for porches, as many families slept on their front porches during the summer to escape the oppressive heat.

By the 1940s, malaria levels began dropping steadily. Between 1947 and 1953, the federal government began sponsoring a project to spray the pesticide DDT throughout southern communities to control mosquitoes. The effort was successful as mosquito populations dropped and the numbers of new cases dropped. By 1951, Arkansas reported no new cases of malaria.

However, problems developed with some of these early efforts. DDT was discontinued as the more serious effects of the pesticide became known. Quinine fell into disuse because of its sometimes extreme side effects and as more effective medications became available, such as doxycycline, chloroquine, and mefloquine. However, efforts to find a reliable vaccine have remained elusive as malaria is caused by neither viruses nor bacteria and the plasmodium parasite can build its own resistance to these vaccines and medications.

Today, most cases in the United States emerge from people visiting overseas bringing cases into the country. The Mayo Clinic reports that malaria still kills more than 440,000 people each year. Though science had eliminated malaria in the United States, it still remains a major challenge in other parts of the world.

Special Note: No one should ever take any anti-malarial medication without the express consent of a doctor. Though these medications can be life-saving for certain conditions, they are only safe when used properly. Medications used improperly can themselves cause serious illness or injury. Only use prescription medications strictly as prescribed by a licensed doctor.

Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at [email protected] southark.edu.

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