LivingWhen quinine was so important that it was trafficked...

When quinine was so important that it was trafficked and even allowed you to win wars

In total, there are more than 450 different types of malaria parasites, inoculated by 70 of the 480 species of anopheles mosquitoes. Only five affect humans, but that’s enough for malaria to kill one person every 30 seconds . Thus it is not surprising to say that mortality due to malaria has been greater than any other disease in the world.

In 1964, Spain was declared malaria free and received the official eradication certificate, although Africa continues to be a region where thousands of people die every year, especially children.

For a long time, quinine was the only defense against this species of Grim Reaper disguised as a mosquito, which is why it came to be used as a strategy to win wars.

From 1861 to 1865, the United States fought the Civil War , a bloody civil war in which quinine was so strategically important that it became, in fact, a fundamental part of the munitions in the Union arsenal. The malarial fevers, however, took hold on the opposing side, the Confederacy, which ultimately meant that the Union enjoyed such an important advantage. So it was quinine, above any other factor, that would help save the North.

To defeat malaria, the Union distributed to its soldiers on the order of 19 tons of refined quinine, a figure far higher than the Confederate rebels counted. This caused the prices of quinine to rise astronomically , and in parallel the smugglers found a business in it much more important than in any other material. Thus, just 30 grams of quinine cost about $ 4 in 1861, $ 23 in 1864 and up to $ 400 and $ 600 towards the end of the war.

To introduce the smuggling of quinine among the Confederates, strategies similar to those now used in the drug trade were used: filler was introduced into furniture, upholstery or dolls for girls; “mules” such as those we now see in airports or border posts were also used, since quinine was sewn on women’s skirts, on false bottoms of luggage, or was transported carefully packaged in the rectum or intestines of cattle.

Quinine is the strongest of the four alkaloids found in the bark of trees of the genus Cinchona . It was isolated and named in 1820 by French researchers Pierre Joseph Pelletier and Joseph Bienaimé Caventou . For decades it was the only lifeboat for an airborne disease infecting millions of people.

However, although quinine is still used today with good results for the most serious forms of malaria, it was only after World War II that chloroquine was discovered, which was more effective, cheap and safe. The first vaccine against malaria was approved in 2015 by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and has been developed by the GlaxoSmithKline company, GSK. Although its efficacy is limited (it reaches 40% of cases) and only serves for malaria caused by Plasmodium falciparum (the most frequent), it is an important percentage to be the first vaccine to prevent this pathology. Specifically, in the first 18 months of follow-up after three doses, malaria cases were reduced by almost half in children between 5 and 17 months at the time of the first vaccination, and 27% in infants (between 6 and 12 weeks). After four doses, a case reduction of 39% was achieved in children between 5 and 17 months and 27% in infants (four-year follow-up).

Little by little, then, we are losing our dependence on quinine, that drug that became as coveted as gold.

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