The year I lived in Africa long ago, we didn’t worry much about malaria. Mosquitoes that carried the parasite didn’t thrive on the cool, dry Eritrean plateau, 7200 feet above sea level. For rare jaunts to lower altitudes, we swallowed malaria pills before, during, and after—probably chloroquine, though I don’t remember for certain.
Deadly malaria evolved millions of years ago and spread to every inhabited continent. Controlling it in the United States was CDC’s original mission in 1946; the agency was based in Atlanta because most of the nation’s malaria was in the Southeast. CDC’s program centered on spraying home interiors with DDT. Encouraged by its success, the World Health Organization in 1955 undertook to eradicate the disease worldwide.
When I worked for Rotary on polio immunization in the 1980s, malaria killed perhaps a million people a year. In debates whether polio could be eradicated, advocates pointed to the recent eradication of smallpox as reason for hope. Naysayers pointed to WHO’s inability to eradicate malaria globally. The disease still kills more than 400,000 people annually, mostly in Africa, mostly young children.
WHO last week recommended a broad rollout of the world’s first malaria vaccine, developed by GlaxoSmithKline and oddly named RTS,S. The world’s first-ever vaccine against any parasitic illness, RTS,S is far from ideal. It requires a series of four injections. Efficacy is only 30 to 40 percent. Nevertheless, in combination with bed nets and antimalarial drugs, it should save tens of thousands of lives each year. Now that’s something to celebrate.
“There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.”
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Questions aren’t welcome to those in authority. Churches and totalitarian regimes have imprisoned or killed people who voice honest doubts. My sympathies are largely with the questioners, who challenge blind obedience and inspire fresh discoveries. The past year has me wondering, is there a point when questioning should stop?
The temptation is to say yes, stop when the questions turn dangerous. But danger has always been the excuse for burning heretics and cracking down on dissidents. How is danger to public health or trust in elections so different from danger to eternal salvation or national survival in time of crisis? Why do unending questions bother me in some cases and not others?
The relevant distinction, to me, is between questions in pursuit of truth and pseudo-questions to hold truth at bay. My sympathy is for questioners motivated by curiosity and a search for answers, questioners open to possibility and fresh insights. I have none for those who ask, “Isn’t the earth really flat?” again and again, indifferent to evidence. Who promote public distrust, then use that distrust to call the round earth hypothesis an open question. Who will insist the question remains open until someone proves the earth is flat.
Questioners in search of answers have my sympathy, whether or not I share their honest doubt. Dishonest doubters are a different matter. They disguise denial as uncertainty and immovable stances as questions, simply because they don’t like the answers.
Image: "Why does the ice float?” scientist Michael Faraday asked in one of his Christmas lectures.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.