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University of Nebraska Medical Center

Should We Be Worried about a Malaria Outbreak in the United States?

Boston University

Malaria has landed in Florida and Texas. BU infectious diseases specialist David Hamer shares his biggest worries when it comes to mosquito-borne diseases—and why malaria might not be the scariest one.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) started operations in 1946, it had an urgent mission: prevent malaria from spreading across the United States. Back then, the southern United States was a hot spot for malaria, a potentially deadly infection caused by a parasite spread by Anopheles mosquitoes. The agency started spraying insecticide, waging an all-out war on the insects. 

Their efforts worked. By 1951, the disease was declared eliminated from all states. 

But this once-endemic disease isn’t completely out of sight in the United States. For the first time since 2003, local transmission of malaria has been found in two states, with six cases in Florida and one in Texas. Over a thousand cases are also diagnosed each year in people traveling from countries where malaria spreads. 

David Hamer, a Boston University School of Public Health professor of global health and a core faculty at the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases Policy & Research, specializes in vector-borne infectious diseases, including malaria. The disease impacts about half of the world’s population, with the highest numbers in sub-Saharan Africa. He says that although there are very effective treatments, symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening, and children under five years old and pregnant women particularly are at high risk.

The Brink talked with Hamer, who also holds an appointment in infectious diseases at the BU Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine, about how malaria likely started to spread in Florida and Texas, protective measures against mosquitoes, and his biggest worries about mosquito-borne diseases, including how climate change is making them more of a threat.

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