Deforestation making Malaysia ‘ground zero’ for surge in monkey malaria say scientists

Although Malaysia has largely eradicated human to human cases of malaria, there is a new threat in our midst in the form of monkey malaria.

Previously a threat confined to the jungles, and rarely transmitted to humans, with encroaching farms taking over what was once wildlife, Malaysia has borne the brunt of the recent wave of cases reported.

A report in Science News details that the strain traced back to monkeys, P. knowlesi, has seen cases jump from nearly zero in the mid-2000s to 3,600 last year. Over the last ten years, Malaysia has recorded 15,000 cases of monkey malaria, with 50 deaths.

Many see the sharp rise in cases as being linked to rapid deforestation, especially on the island of Borneo. Kimberly Fornace, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, believes that clearing jungles to make way for oil palm plantations in Sabah and Sarawak, is to blame. Workers on the plantations labor alongside displaced monkeys, who carry the disease, and all the two need is a common mosquito to link them together, and pass the malaria on.

Fornace came to her conclusion after going to Sabah to test the blood of approximately 2,000 residents. She found that those that lived closest to deforested areas had higher rates of malarial infections from monkeys.

Scientists are acutely aware that eradicating monkey malaria cannot simply be achieved by eradicating the mosquitoes that carry it: The disease already lives in the local wildlife population, and going from monkey to monkey to inoculate each one is largely impossible. Bite prevention is also difficult: One victim described the swarms of insects that bit her even through clothing.

Far more sinister concerns are on the mind of some scientists, and Richard Culleton, from Nagasaki University, told the science magazine that “something nasty” could be lurking. A rapidly changing virus, monkey malaria could mutate into a version that is far more infectious to humans.

While no one can say for certain exactly what the cause of the rise of the disease is, Fornace is willing to bet the house that land clearing is the culprit, as more and more jungle is cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. Malaysia is the world’s second largest producer, after Indonesia, with a 50% increase in plantation size over the last decade.

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