The Biography of Malaria: “The Fever” by Sonia Shah
It bears no explaining that malaria is a major global health issue today. According to WHO, in 2015 there were over 200 million cases, and 400,000 deaths, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa (1). WHO has set ambitious goals for the elimination of malaria, but it is a difficult disease for many reasons – and it has always been.
Sonia Shah says it aptly in her novel, “The Fever: How Malaria has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years”: “Despite the fact that we’ve known about malaria since ancient times, and have the drugs, killing chemicals, and know-how to avoid it, something about this disease still short-circuits our weaponry” (2). “Fever” tells the story of malaria, from its evolution into a parasite from a photosynthesising predecessor to its unrelenting presence in today’s world and the public health problem it poses.
Despite being factually dense, “Fever” does not read like a typical nonfiction. The editorialized style of writing can seem jarring at first, especially in comparison to academic texts or articles – but Shah’s journalistic style brings the book to life, making it into a true biography of Plasmodium. The result is a genuinely enjoyable, relatively light read, despite its heavy topic, that remains accessible to the global health professional or enthusiast alike.
However, even malaria experts will likely find some new information in “Fever”, as its greatest strength is its thoroughness. In true investigative journalist style, Shah’s research for the novel is expansive. While she covers the basics of malaria, such as the different species of the parasite and its clinical features, Shah does not stop there. The novel also describes malaria’s effects on shaping the Roman Empire or colonial America (greater than you would expect), its contributions to humankind’s genetic evolution (much more than just the infamous sickle cell gene), and the pharmaceutical struggle from quinine to artemisinin. It provides a long history of public health interventions and a persisting cultural divide between Western health authorities and malaria-afflicted countries that makes public health interventions so difficult.
Ultimately, “Fever” provides a captivating and detailed story of malaria that will leave any reader with a greater appreciation of a very formidable parasite, and an intellectual concern for how public health will tackle this parasite next.
Vaidehi Nafade is a U3 pharmacology student and an avid reader and writer. Her passion for global health stems from an interest in immigrant and refugee health and cross-cultural medicine.
1. “Malaria Fact Sheet,” WHO, accessed June 13, 2016. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs094/en/
2. Sonia Shah, The Fever: How Malaria has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years (New York: Picador, 2010). 9.