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The malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum , originates from Africa, and is found on every continent. Over 200 million people are infected every year from Africa to Asia, as well as in America and the Middle East. How did it spread to the entire planet? It is not entirely clear how it conquered the New World. Scientists from the UMR Migevec ( 1) and their partners ( 2) have recently shown in the journal PNAS that the pathogen was introduced by ship during the slave trade. The research team collected samples of infected blood taken across the whole distribution area of the disease. Analysis of genetic material extracted showed that the American P. falciparum is a close cousin of its African counterpart. In addition, two separate genetic groups exist in Latin America, as a result of two distinct slave routes, one towards the Spanish empire in the North – West Indies and present-day Mexico and Colombia – and the other towards the Portuguese empire – today’s Brazil. Nearly half of the 2.7 million annual cases of malaria in America are now occurring in Brazil.
This recent expansion of the disease shows the parasite’s ability to spread.