Long before human beings were dying from malaria, or even before there were human beings on Earth, there were the little insects that transmit this deadly disease: mosquitoes.
A new study by researchers at Oregon State University shows that the type of mosquitoes that carry malaria, anopheline mosquitoes, were present on the Earth 100 million years ago. That's older than some dinosaurs, which scientists say lived as recently as 66 million years ago.
The study's findings were published in the journal Historical Biology.
It's not clear whether those 100-million-year-old mosquitoes were carrying malaria, but the finding will help researchers trace the history of the disease that kills more than 400,000 people in the world every year.
People with malaria experience fever, chills and flu-like illness according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If the disease is left untreated, sufferers might develop severe complications and die. Hundreds of millions of cases occur worldwide every year, mostly children in poor and developing countries. About 1,700 cases of malaria are diagnosed in the United States each year according to the CDC. The majority are in travelers and immigrants coming back from other countries.
Malaria was among the biggest health hazards that U.S. troops faced in the South Pacific during World War II. Tens of thousands were infected and more troops died from it than combat.
The disease is caused by a parasite that attaches itself to the inside of a female mosquito's body, and it enters the host when the mosquito bites and sucks blood.
In the study, author George Poinar Jr. of Oregon State University and his co-authors describe a new type of mosquito, Priscoculex burmanicus, that was found preserved in amber in Myanmar, Asia. Some of its physical characteristics show that Priscoculex is an early type of anopheline.
Scientists have debated how and when malaria started. It was found in preserved mosquitoes that are about 30 million years old. Before that, evidence suggests the dinosaurs declined and went extinct over a period of thousands of years rather than all at once in a catastrophic event. Knowing this, some scientists have theorized that malaria and other diseases contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs.
The first human record of malaria was in China in 2,700 B.C., and some researchers say it may have resulted in the fall of the Roman Empire according to an article at Science Daily.
By studying and understanding the history of malaria from millions of years ago, scientists are hoping to learn how the disease evolved so they can learn how to stop its transmission in the future. There is no vaccine for malaria, so the only defense is prevention. That means mosquito screens, loose-fitting clothing that covers most of the body and some of the many products and services that MosquitoNix® provides.
In one of his previous works, Poinar suggested that malaria might have first appeared in an insect such as a "biting midge" fly around 100 million years ago. Now Poinar and other scientists can include mosquitoes as possible malaria vessels that existed at the same time according to Science Daily.
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The World Health Organization (WHO) ranks mosquitoes as one of earth's deadliest animals, thanks to their ability to spread disease. These diseases include Zika, the West Nile virus, Chikungunya, dengue, yellow fever and malaria. Malaria alone killed nearly 450,000 people in 2016, mainly young children and babies in sub-Saharan Africa.