Malaria caused thousands of ANZAC deaths

Burnet Institute

25 April, 2012

Professor James Beeson talking with ABC Radio's Rafael Epstein at the Shrine broadcast. Photo: Catherine Somerville

With World Malaria Day falling each year on Australia’s revered Anzac Day, it was fitting that Burnet malaria researcher, Professor James Beeson shared his insights during ABC Radio 774’s special broadcast from the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne.

Thousands of ANZACs and American troops suffered terribly during the Pacific War campaign from the debilitating effects of malaria, caused by a mosquito-borne parasite.

“In one year, the number of deaths from malaria and disease was 20,000 compared to 6,000 due to battle casualties,” Professor Beeson revealed.

“There wasn’t great diagnostic tests at the time, but we know that in some areas malaria consistently caused more deaths than combat.”

Quinine, which had been an effective medicine against malaria for 300 years, became the frontline treatment for the troops.

“The diggers suffered terribly until it was recognised by the Australian and American military commanders that the supply of Quinine tablets needed to be prioritised. But, of course this wasn’t available to prisoners of war,” he said.

Almost 70 years since the end of WWII, malaria remains a major cause of death and illness in Papua New Guinea, one of the fiercest theatres of jungle combat for the Australian diggers.

“Malaria has been with us since our first footsteps, but the complex organism keeps evolving, and despite developing new drugs they are effective for only 10-15 years and then drug-resistance occurs,” he said.

“We now face the global challenge that drug-resistance to the last effective cheap drug we have to treat many people across Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, is now showing drug-resistance on the Thailand border.”

Professor Beeson heads up Burnet’s Centre for Immunology and is one of the leading malaria researchers working on a malaria vaccine.

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