Malaria is one of the most devastating illnesses in the world. More than one million people die each year from the disease, while 300 to 600 million suffer from it every year. As much as over 40% of the world’s population lives in areas at risk of malaria. According to a new study performed by a team of researchers with multiple backgrounds, 25% of American white tailed deer have malaria.
You never know what you’re going to find
As Ellen Martinsen was working on a project at the Smithsonian National Zoo, collecting mosquitos in order to find bird specific malaria, she found something completely unexpected – Plasmodium odocoilei, the malaria parasite that infects white tailed deer.
Despite the species being heavily studied, nobody noticed before that white deer had specific malaria parasites; but wait, there’s more – as much as 25% of the entire population of deer on American soil is infected with the fatal illness.
But if that’s the case, why didn’t we see any deer dead because of malaria? Apparently, the parasite only occurs in very low levels in the infected deer. This means that the disease is either on a low burner, constantly hurting the animals but only at a low level, or that it manifests completely differently for them, not actually physically hurting them.
One of the biggest problems related to the discovery of the parasite in mammals other than humans is that even if it was found in the past – which it was once – nobody would have believed it because of conflicting data. It would have been pretty much the equivalent of saying you saw bigfoot.
Malaria’s worldwide spread
This new discovery makes the scientific world’s understanding of the worldwide distribution of malaria far different than what formerly believed. Data collected by the team shows that the deer in fact carry two distinct genetic lineages of the disease – most likely different species of the same parasite.
By using this information as a sort of molecular clock, the team managed to figure out when the two lineages split. By figuring out that this happened 2.3 to 6 million years ago, the researchers pinpointed that the malaria parasite is almost certainly native to America.
Because of huge casualties and suffering caused by the disease every year, researchers are determined to put their new information to use and figure out a way to treat or even stop the worldwide threat that is the malaria parasite.
And as a safety measure, the researchers warn that the deer form of the disease can’t really infect humans, so you should be safe.
Image source: Pixabay