Reality bites at Malaria Tea Dance
Mosquitoes, malaria and the Charleston. These were the topics of conversation buzzing in the air at the Malaria Tea Dance on Friday, held at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) in celebration of World Mosquito Day – the anniversary of Ronald Ross’s discovery of malarial parasites in the Anopheles mosquito on 20 August 1897. The discovery won him the Nobel prize for medicine in 1902.
Passing into the LSHTM library under a mosquito net draped with saris and messages from malaria researchers in far-flung corners of the globe, I was invited by a cheery matron in 1930s dress (played by actor Rebecca Tremain) to partake in some “prophylactics” in the form of gin and tonic.
The choice of drink, and dress, was apt. Ross made his discovery while working in the Indian Medical Service, at a time when quinine – a component of tonic water – was the only known drug for treating malaria. The original malaria tea party held in his honour was two years after his death in 1934, when the Ross Institute and Hospital for Tropical Diseases was incorporated into the LSHTM.
Surrounded by shelves of medical journals and textbooks, the guests – many in 1930s dress – talked mosquito nets and combination drugs over tea and cakes to the sound of early jazz
Ross’s original diary passage from the day of his discovery was on show alongside his microscope and slides. In the spidery scrawl of doctors the world over, and with accompanying diagrams, he describes how, dissecting the stomach of a mosquito fed on a malarial patient, he found “a clear and almost perfectly circular outline… of about 12 microns in diameter” in the stomach wall. Too sharp and small to be a stomach cell, Ross had found the malarial Plasmodium parasite (though it wasn’t until 1898 he was able to prove – in birds – that mosquitoes pass on malaria through their bite).
The highlight for me was a dramatic retelling of Ross’s discovery, brought to life by actors Gary Merry as the man himself, Penelope Dimond as his wife Rosa and George Stone as Patrick “Mosquito” Manson, who developed the parasite theory of malaria.
Engaging and often funny, Merry’s script paid homage to the difficulties Ross suffered working in the hot Indian climate, and in trying to secure funding and recognition for his work. The dramatisation was interspersed with passages from Ross’s diaries, which had the powerful effect of making it feel as though Ross himself was speaking to us down through history. To top it off, dancers Anna Symes and Ivan Fabrega then kicked off the dancing with a lively Charleston, which everyone joined in with.
The event was not just a historical commemoration, though. In the laboratories of the Malaria Centre a floor below where we danced, research into malaria continues.
“From how to keep a mosquito net impregnated with insecticide to studying the disease at the molecular level, there’s now a huge network of interest in malaria,” says Frank Cox of the LSHTM, now retired. “I finished my PhD 40 years ago. At the time my supervisor told me, ‘Don’t bother with malaria – it will be gone within 10 years.'”
So what went wrong, I ask. “Everything,” replies Cox. “African independence changed the research agenda, and there is widespread drug resistance and insecticide resistance. In the 1960s optimists thought the disease could be eradicated. Now they think it can be controlled, at best.”
Though a new family of potent combination drugs called artemisins are proving effective, resistance remains a problem, says Colin Sutherland, reader in parasitology at the LSHTM.
As I finish off my third cream scone of the afternoon, I wonder what Ross would have thought of how far we have come. His discovery 114 years ago kick-started a rich research agenda which continues to this day, and informs the treatment of 250 million people around the world every year. Despite setbacks like drug resistance, the fight against malaria continues. Surely that deserves a celebratory G&T.
Cian O’Luanaigh, online producer – The New Scientist – 22 August 2011