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Ancient Teeth Samples From Time Of Roman Empire Bear Evidence Of Malaria Parasite

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Researchers have found evidence that back up the idea that the mosquito-borne malaria has already caused devastations and deaths among communities in the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago.

First Direct Evidence Of Malaria In Imperial Italy

In a study published in the journal Current Biology, a team of researchers reported of the first direct evidence of malaria in Imperial Italy.

Historical texts such as those found in Hippocrates' "On Epidemics" and Celsus' "De Medicina" described fevers that sounded like malaria. The texts described the fevers as repeated and occur at particular times of the year.

It was difficult to classify these fevers as malaria because many infections cause fever but the repeated outbreaks hint of the possibility these could be malaria since nobody can build up immunity against the disease.

Until now, there has been no DNA evidence to prove this but the discovery confirmed that it was indeed the malaria-causing parasite Plasmodium falciparum, which is the same one transmitted by mosquitoes today, that was responsible for those fevers.

DNA Evidence From Ancient Teeth Samples

The researchers conducted an analysis of teeth samples from the remains of 58 adults and 10 children who were buried in three cemeteries in Italy from the time of the Roman Empire. They recovered the mitochondrial genomic evidence of Plasmodium falciparum despite the bodies having been buried 2,000 years ago.

"The mtDNA sequences generated provided compelling phylogenetic evidence for the presence of P. falciparum in two individuals. This is the first genomic data directly implicating P. falciparum in Imperial period southern Italy in adults," wrote study author Stephanie Marciniak, from McMaster University, and colleagues in their study.

Malaria Fatality Rate During The Roman Empire

Marciniak and colleagues estimate that the number of people killed by malaria during the Roman Empire is comparable to the number of malaria-caused fatalities in Africa today. In 2015, there were about 438,000 deaths caused by malaria worldwide. Of these, 91 percent occurred in sub-Saharan Africa.

Symptoms of malaria include fever, nausea, chills and headache. The parasite responsible for this potentially fatal disease is transmitted through the bite of an infected Anopheles female mosquito.

Scientists have been conducting studies with the aim of repelling, if not eliminating these mosquitoes particularly now that malaria-causing parasites become increasingly resistant to Artemisinin, the most effective drug against malaria. Earlier this year, researchers discovered that mosquitoes that carry malaria-causing parasites are repelled by the odor of chickens, a discovery that may eventually pave way for new insect repelling products that can curb cases of mosquito-borne diseases.

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