Public Health

How The U.S. Stopped Malaria, One Cartoon At A Time

"Her business is robbery and coldblooded murder ... they call her Annie Awful ... She's a thief and a killer. She stops at nothing."

Those lines sound like they're from an old detective movie, but they're actually from a 1943 public health cartoon aimed at preventing malaria. That dangerous dame, Annie Awful, is Anopheles — the family of mosquitoes that transmits the malaria parasite.

The cartoon's creator was the predecessor of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today the CDC is the world's top authority on an array of germs and viruses. But its origins are deeply rooted in malaria — and war.

The CDC was founded during World War II as the Office of Malaria Control in War Areas. The agency was charged with eradicating malaria in the South, especially around military bases. It ran mosquito abatement programs and publicity campaigns denouncing the insects, such as the animated film above.

At the same time, the U.S. Army was working hard to eliminate the parasite on military bases and among the troops. They broadcasted anti-malaria jingles on the Armed Forces Radio and distributed cartoons and "pinup calendars" encouraging troops to cover up and use repellent.

Through the groups' combined efforts, the U.S. officially eradicated malaria in 1951. The CDC, though, still remains very involved with malaria research around the globe.

  • While the Office of Malaria Control in War Areas focused on stopping malaria in the U.S. during War World II, the U.S. Army launched an aggressive campaign to combat the parasite among troops. In 1945, it distributed a monthly pinup calendar to soldiers in the Pacific, encouraging them to use bug repellent, sleep under bed nets and cover up.
    Hide caption
    While the Office of Malaria Control in War Areas focused on stopping malaria in the U.S. during War World II, the U.S. Army launched an aggressive campaign to combat the parasite among troops. In 1945, it distributed a monthly pinup calendar to soldiers in the Pacific, encouraging them to use bug repellent, sleep under bed nets and cover up.
    Cartoon by Frank Mack for the U.S. Army/Courtesy of Images from the History of Medicine
  • One mosquito bite could ruin a GI's chance of returning to the pleasures back home. The artist Frank Mack designed these malaria pinup calendars given to troops in the Pacific during World War II.
    Hide caption
    One mosquito bite could ruin a GI's chance of returning to the pleasures back home. The artist Frank Mack designed these malaria pinup calendars given to troops in the Pacific during World War II.
    Cartoon by Frank Mack for the U.S. Army/Courtesy of Images from the History of Medicine
  • More than half of the soldiers in the Pacific caught malaria. This poster from 1944 helped remind troops to avoid mosquitoes that transmit the parasite.
    Hide caption
    More than half of the soldiers in the Pacific caught malaria. This poster from 1944 helped remind troops to avoid mosquitoes that transmit the parasite.
    U.S. Government Printing Office/Courtesy of Images from the History of Medicine
  • Back on the homefront, public health workers were busy stopping malaria around military bases. This poster, printed by the U.S. Public Health Services between 1941 and 1945, reminded folks to keep malaria-carrying mosquitoes out of the house.
    Hide caption
    Back on the homefront, public health workers were busy stopping malaria around military bases. This poster, printed by the U.S. Public Health Services between 1941 and 1945, reminded folks to keep malaria-carrying mosquitoes out of the house.
    Office for Emergency Management/Archives.gov
  • Mosquitoes transmit the malaria parasite, but when people aren't treated, they help the disease to spread. This public health poster, which was also printed by the U.S. Public Health Services during World War II, was aimed at stopping malaria on the homefront.
    Hide caption
    Mosquitoes transmit the malaria parasite, but when people aren't treated, they help the disease to spread. This public health poster, which was also printed by the U.S. Public Health Services during World War II, was aimed at stopping malaria on the homefront.
    Office for Emergency Management/Archives.gov

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The agency's labs can carry out complicated chemical analysis of insecticide levels on bed nets or decode the molecular structures inside the malaria parasite.

And, CDC has become a resource for scientists in Africa, Southeast Asia and many developing countries, where malaria remains one the most significant health problems.

Last year, the CDC tallied 1,600 domestic malaria cases inside the U.S. All of these were in people who'd picked up the parasite outside of the country.

The low number of domestic cases poses a challenge for health care facilities, which rarely encounter the disease and may have difficulty diagnosing it. With malaria, a rapid diagnosis can be crucial because the disease can kill a person in a matter of days.

So the CDC helps local doctors, hospitals and health departments identify the parasite from pictures of blood. Local health workers can even send images of parasites via email for so-called telediagnosis.

Last year, the CDC fielded 450 inquiries for telediagnosis of suspected parasitic infections. About a third of those cases turned out to be malaria.

Microbiologist Blaine Mathison, one of two scientists who perform telediagnosis at the CDC, says he can even analyze an image of a blood smear straight off his BlackBerry. "I remember once," he says, "I've actually sat at Turner Field at a Braves game and done diagnostics while watching a ballgame."

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