A fast-acting strain of malaria is now the leading cause of hospitalizations in Malaysia, according to Dr. Balbir Singh, director of the Malaria Research Center at the University of Malaysia in Sarawak.
Plasmodium knowlesi is a species of parasite carried by macaques, a small primate native to Southeast Asia. One of several species of protozoa that can cause malaria in humans, the disease is commonly transmitted via mosquitoes. Though a rarer form of malaria parasite, P. knowlesi is incredibly dangerous due to its ability to replicate in 24 hours – two to three times faster than other malaria parasites.
On Monday, Dr. Singh explained to the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene that P. knowlesi is now responsible for 68 percent of malaria hospitalizations in East Malaysia. Though researchers have yet to establish a direct reason for the spread of this formerly-rare form of malaria, Dr. Singh believes the outbreak is linked to the rapid deforestation in the country.
According to Google satellite data, Malaysia lost 14.4 percent of its forest cover between 2000 and 2012, the highest rate of deforestation in the world for that time period. This finding was part of a project undertaken by Google, the U.S. Geological Survey and 15 researchers from the University of Maryland. The researchers analyzed over 650,000 Landsat images to create an interactive map of global deforestation. The gif below was created by Motherboard using the Indonesian data (bear in mind, Malaysia’s deforestation is even more extensive).
As more forest is cleared to make way for Malaysia’s palm oil plantations and timber industry, the buffer between infected macaques and humans is shrinking.
“When people go into the forest where they have their farms, or go hunting, or work in the timber camps, these are the ones that are being exposed to the mosquitoes that are feeding on macaques,” Singh told Motherboard’s Derek Mead.
“This is anecdotal evidence: When talking to people, they say ‘We never had malaria here until they started clearing land for plantations, and then there were more macaques.”
The role of deforestation in the spread of disease has been well documented. The recent ebola outbreak, for example, is believed to have been partially due to increased mining, hunting and logging in West Africa.
“Right now we can only speculate, but deforestation for me seems to be a major, major reason for the increase,” says Singh.