Vinita Surukan knewthemosquitoes were trouble. They attacked her in swarms, biting through her clothes as she worked to collect rubber tree sap near her village in Sabah, the northern state of Malaysia.
The 30-year-old woman described the situation
as nearly unbearable. But she needed the job.
There were few alternatives in her village surrounded by fragments of forest reserves and larger
swaths of farms, oil palm plantations and rubber
tree estates. So she endured until a week of high
fever and vomiting forced her to stop.
The night of July 23, Surukan was trying to
sleep off her fever when the clinic she visited earlier in the day called with results: Her blood was
teeming with malaria parasites, about a million
Several states in
Sabah (above left), have
lost large swaths of
forest to oil palm and
rubber tree plantations.
As a result, macaques
(center), which can carry
malaria parasites, are
living closer to people.
blood samples from
local residents to check
for malaria parasite
in each drop. Her family rushed her to the town
hospital where she received intravenous antimalarial drugs before being transferred to a city
hospital equipped to treat severe malaria. The
drugs cleared most of the parasites, and the lucky
woman was smiling by morning.
Malaria has terrorized humans for millennia, its
fevers carved into our earliest writing on ancient
Sumerian clay tablets from Mesopotamia. In
2016, four species of human malaria parasites,
which are spread by mosquito from person to
person, infected more than 210 million people
worldwide, killing almost 450,000. The deadliest
species, Plasmodium falciparum, causes most of
But Surukan’s malaria was different. Hers was
not a human malaria parasite. She had P. knowlesi,
which infects several monkey species. The same
parasite had recently infected two other people
in Surukan’s village — a man who hunts in the
forest and a teenager. Surukan suspects that her
parasites came from the monkeys that live in the
forest bordering the rubber tree estate where she
worked. Some villagers quit working there after
hearing of Surukan’s illness.
THE NEXT MALARIA MENACE
monkeys and humans
close enough to share
an age-old disease
By Yao-Hua Law