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The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years

3.90  ·  Rating details ·  1,261 ratings  ·  174 reviews

In recent years, malaria has emerged as a cause célèbre for voguish philanthropists. Bill Gates, Bono, and Laura Bush are only a few of the personalities who have lent their names—and opened their pocketbooks—in hopes of curing the disease. Still, in a time when every emergent disease inspires waves of panic, why aren’t we doing more to eradicate one of our olde

Hardcover, 320 pages
Published July 6th 2010 by Sarah Crichton Books (first published June 29th 2010)
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Aug 06, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: malaria
I'm going to start this review by noting that I am a malaria researcher, myself, and thus am already familiar with much of the material Shah presented in this book. This, of course, affects the way I read the book and my perception of it.

My first gripe with the book is that, to me, the story seemed to be set up in a strange way. The author seems to have broken the book up into a short discussion of the parasite (Plasmodium species), a moderate length discussion on the host (humans, in this case)
Disclosure: This follows on the heels of Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World and The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, and I am an avid consumer of epidemiological histories, like And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (an all-time favorite book of mine) which indubidably biased my reading of The Fever.

The Fever suffers from being too short. I trying to be too many things in 240 pages+footnotes: a cult
Oct 19, 2011 rated it really liked it
Malaria is a complex disease that cannot be summed up in a slogan or sound-bite. Ms. Shah does a good job of covering both how malaria affects people and the larger impact on history. She explains why control of malaria is much more difficult than for other diseases.

For me the book bogged down a bit in the middle as she reported battle after battle in wars over thousands of years where the outcome was determined by malaria. Once she made that point and moved to the science and politics of moder
Jun 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: development, history
I enjoyed this book on the history of malaria: the disease had an enormous impact, shaping human history at several critical junctures in the past. Most of it was unknown to me: from the Roman empire to the colonisation of North America, how the slave trade deepened, how Scotland lost its independence, how malaria was part of World War strategies, ... very fascinating!

I also liked the elaborate parts on the complexity of malaria, the parasite Plasmodium and its Anopheles vector. The first time I
If you’re looking for a well researched, thematic examination of malaria’s role in human history, I’d recommend checking this one out. While it doesn’t hold your hand through all the science and public health concepts, it’s still very accessible to a general audience. Researchers will enjoy the vast bibliography in the back of all works cited. The writing itself is fine - clear and concise with an approachable tone.

For me, I have a decent understanding of malaria’s general transmission, epidemi
Jay C
Jul 04, 2017 rated it really liked it
A very educational read for me, on a topic I admittedly knew very little about when I began reading. Almost a chronicle of humanity's naïveté or arrogance in the way that our imagined solutions to "the Malaria problem" continued and in many cases continue to be defeated. Even though we can "do the math" I think it's still hard for humans to fully appreciate the sheer numbers and "generational turnover" of our insect and parasite foes. Very thought-providing reading, leaving me wanting to learn m ...more
Jun 04, 2011 rated it liked it
good history and easy-to-digest science regarding why malaria has been so devastating and so resistant to eradication efforts. Because a couple of my nephews went to a high school run by Jesuits, I was interested in the anecdote that Oliver Cromwell and other Protestants derided cinchona as "Jesuit's powder" and refused to use this malaria treatment, in Cromwell's case at the cost of his life. Jesuit missionaries had seen the cinchona bark work in South America and tried to bring it to Europe. O ...more
Dec 25, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
My colleague Katherine Robinson recommended this book. Exquisitely researched, it brings to light the way malaria has shaped human history, politics, and economics. The book is quite comprehensive and a bit depressing, since this virus seems to outwit us at every turn: and the few times we might have had the upper hand are squandered among competing interests (no surprise there!). Very, very nice.
Nov 20, 2013 rated it it was amazing
You know you’re into something special when you open a book randomly and find something compelling on every page.

Sonia Shah performs a great balancing act in delivering the complexities of malarial science while keeping the storytelling brisk and riveting.

The long history of the disease also provides her with rich pickings and some great anecdotes like that of Oliver Cromwell.

He spurned one of the best and most effective treatments of the day, the ground-up bark of the cinchona tree, because it
Jul 27, 2010 marked it as to-read
Recommended to Richard by: New York Times
The New York Times reviewed The Fever on July 26, 2010, in Drama! Intrigue! A Mystery? No, Malaria’s Story .

With global warming climate change, malaria will undoubtedly return to the United States, so this looks like a good book to preview coming attractions. As the New York Times reports, Dengue fever is already back in Florida and likely to move up the eastern seaboard, and — astonishingly — the United States Centers for Disease Control is closing its “vector-borne” disease branch:
The disea
Feb 18, 2012 rated it really liked it
Sonia Shah hates mosquitoes, as do I.

I have occassion to help diaganosis Malaria, in an east coast medical center. When a patient is diagnosed, it is usually someone who was originally from a malaria infested area who has been living in the US (legal or otherwise). He or she goes back for a visit; and as they had not used anti-malaral medicines in their youth, they see no reason to spend the money. And when they come back they are sick with fever. Before reading Shah's explaination of limited lo
Shana Yates
This book was OK. The pros: good introduction into malaria, it's impact and longevity on human society, and the mechanisms of its infection and treatment. The cons: the author spends way too much time anthropomorphizing the parasite (and in doing so, hits all my pet peeves in discussing how the thing mutates and evolves and imbuing such changes with direction and forethought) and is sometimes a little disorganized. Overall, perfectly fine book if you'd like some context and history of malaria, b ...more
Oct 21, 2010 rated it it was amazing
I thought at first this would be a dry book about the history of malaria. Far from it - an interesting survey of malaria - its symptoms, history, treatment. Malaria, through mosquitoes, has always been intertwined with human history, its politics, warfare, social aspirations. What the author seems to emphasize, and I agree, is that there is no ultimate cure or vaccine for malaria. It's always going to be with us, apparently, and progress against (both because of the adaptability of the parasite ...more
Lorraine M. Thompson
Feb 12, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This is a must-read for anyone who is interested in malaria, its history and the world's current approach to treatment. I will give a more thorough review once my notes and I are in the same room. For now, I must say that this was one of the most well-written and well-researched book on malaria that I have read in a long time. Kudos to the author. The one thing I would encourage the author to do is to include drawings/ diagrams / photos which could have greatly facilitated the reader's understan ...more
May 11, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
(3.5 stars) This book is a chronicle of malaria. The author goes into the history of the disease, its complex lifecycle and how it has factored into the course of human history. She also relates some of the progress and failures in controlling it. While I knew some of the facts, the author came up with some intriguing new insights. For example, malaria led to demise of Scotland as a separate country, and some of the less well known impacts of the disease on the United States and the building of ...more
Apr 06, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: science
My family did not want to indulge me in discussing this book (because they are very fragile), but I swear this isn't some scare-your-pants-off Hot Zone thriller. It's just an interesting look at a disease that's been with us and shaped our civilizations and cultures since we were more great ape than human. Informative if a bit scattered in organization. ...more
Feb 16, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I really liked this book. I felt like I was learning but I wasn't bored for a second. However, I am not despondent about ever eradicating malaria. People are too stupid, selfish and greedy to all work together to get rid of it. I am angry at the world. ...more
May 18, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science-issues
VERY interesting exploration of malaria, its evolution through history, how it has affected humans, how we try to fight it, and why it's not working. Fascinating. ...more
Apr 14, 2015 rated it really liked it
Interesting and engaging read. Ties together the biological, public health, political and economic elements involved in the history of malaria.
Jan 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
4.5 stars

A very approachable history of malaria, one that integrates human behavior into the story more thoroughly than a more biology-oriented book would. Not that Shah skimps on the science; we do learn the basics of the parasite's life cycle, as well as the way it flourishes in only certain Anopheles vectors, which in turn are adapted to specific niches.

I think Shah makes a strong argument for her thesis; colonialism and imperialism were significantly impacted by the presence of malaria - con
Nov 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
The Fever is about the history of malaria. Malaria is an ancient disease. Although it was identified in 1880, author Sonia Shah traces it from Roman times. Today we understand much about this disease, but getting to this point has been arduous. First, malaria is caused not by a virus or bacteria, but by a one-celled parasite, the Plasmodium. Five species of Plasmodium infect humans, of which the Plasmodium falciparum is the most serious.

This parasite undergoes development in both mosquito and hu
Marek Eby
Oct 07, 2020 rated it liked it
An very interesting but somewhat flawed book. It gets things right in broad strokes: that malaria is a complex disease, and that it might be eradicable, but certainly not through the "silver bullet" approach that has dominated since WWII.

However, large parts of the narrative are vague or even factually questionable. The treatment of malariology during the interwar period, especially in Europe, is poor. The League of Nations Health Organisation and its Malaria Commission is almost entirely absen
Premal Vora
Apr 05, 2020 rated it really liked it
The next time you encounter a statement. "This year x individuals were infected with malaria, and y of these died due to malaria," view that statement with skepticism because both numbers are either underreported or overreported -- it's just not clear which! For, as Sonia Shah reports in this book, malaria isn't just a disease, but a rather complex human behavioral, economic, and geo-political problem.

Shah begins this fascinating book at the micro level: the description of what malaria biologica
Apr 29, 2021 rated it really liked it
Just a few thoughts, not really a review:

What I liked about this book is that it brings to your notice the 'last mile' of malaria.
An interesting bit in the book that highlights this, is how insecticide treated nets actually end up being used in some African villages. Another is a part about several ethnographic studies of how the people who live with the disease really perceive it.

Time and time again, why is it that when policies and interventions are designed, they fail to fully consider who i
Fred Rose
Apr 21, 2021 rated it really liked it
I've always known malaria to be a complex disease but I didn't realize how complex. It's not surprising it took so long to work out the vector between mosquitoes and parasites. Plus there's so many species of each and different environmental ecosystems and cultural situations, it's not a surprise it continues to be such a problem. I found this to be a really good book to describe all of this in a pretty accessible way. I thought the author did a good job of combining both the science of how mal ...more
Jun 15, 2019 rated it liked it
3.3 Stars

Fairly well researched but poor organization hampers Ms. Shah's argument. Her critiques of global public health NGOs and IGOs are mostly persuasive, though sometimes seem inconsistent. She spends a chapter tearing into the WHO's slow adoption of new techniques and then another chapter faulting NGO's for trying to use new techniques against the WHO's recommendations. [Disclosure: I am related to someone who used to work for the Gates Foundation so grain of salt here.] Merging these chapt
Dec 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I listened to this book on Audible in January because I'm switching research tracks to mosquito and vector ecology, and listened to it again over the last month because I wanted to be able to remember more details. (We don't currently have malaria in my area, but Audible only has so many books about vector-borne diseases.) I loved it. There are no citations in the audiobook, so I'm giving Shah the benefit of the doubt that they appear in the print version. Assuming it's properly cited, this book ...more
Apr 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
I read this after it was recommended on This Podcast Will Kill You and I could hardly put it down. Moving backwards and forward in time, hopping from continent to continent, mixing personal and historical fact... the narrative moves like a mosquito, but unlike one of those damn insects, it's not hard to follow and you don't lose track of it.

The author does an excellent job with the finicky details of the life cycle of the malaria plasmodium. She also, very interestingly, manages to both impress
Ashley Kennedy
Feb 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
As a former medical entomology professor (not to mention a former malaria patient), I thought I knew everything I needed to know about malaria, but I learned a lot from this book. For example, I didn't know the malaria parasite evolved from a plant-like organism, similar to aquatic algae, and I didn't know that the parasite manipulates human behavior to facilitate its transmission by making us supine/more vulnerable to mosquito bites. This book also gave me a better understanding of why eradicat ...more
Elizabeth Eva
Aug 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Arresting in its swinging critique of how first governments, then NGOs, and now all these private philanthro-capitalist foundations and celebrities have decided that they know best how to eradicate malaria, all the time making it worse and not really asking--or listening to--the people that it most affects. Where it has disappeared, ecological and environmental change has sent it packing, often without much human planning; and where it has remained, it is less of a problem than the lack of infra ...more
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Sonia Shah is a science journalist and prize-winning author. Her writing on science, politics, and human rights has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, Scientific American and elsewhere. Her work has been featured on RadioLab, Fresh Air, and TED, where her talk, “Three Reasons We Still Haven’t Gotten Rid of Malaria” has been viewed by over 1,000,000 people aro ...more

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“One simple reason for malaria’s ferocity is that the protozoan creature that causes the disease is, by definition, a cheater at the game of life. It is a parasite, a creature that can eke out its livelihood only by depleting others of theirs. The rest of us all do our obscure little part in the drama of life, weaving ourselves deeper into local ecology and strengthening its fabric, the bees pollinating the flowers, predators culling the herds of their weakest members. Parasites don’t help anyone. They’re degenerates.” 0 likes
“The shrub mululuza is one of many plants with secondary compounds that provide relief from malaria. Chimpanzees chew on its bitter leaves, as did our African ancestors, suggesting the curious idea that our knowledge of botanical malaria medicines—like malaria itself—may have survived the evolutionary hop from ape to human.5 Clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, basil, and onion similarly all assuage Plasmodium’s appetite, making the body’s repair of damage from free radicals—oxygen molecules untethered to hemoglobin—more difficult. This, paradoxically, can help destroy malaria parasites by exposing infected cells to the armies of free radicals that malaria infection unleashes, and may explain why for millennia people sought out and added these nutritionally empty products to their diets.” 0 likes
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