A narrative on a postage stamp: The latest historical past of the malaria occasions informed by way of postage stamps

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With the widespread use of email and electronic messaging apps for personal and business correspondence, the importance of the letter and the humble postage stamp on the front of the envelope may have diminished for many of us. However, as Bernard Brabin points out in his review, the postage stamp has played an important role as a record of malaria events and an important form of disseminating information about elimination programs since the 1840s.

by pixabay

As small as they may be, postage stamps have long been used to commemorate events (e.g. anniversaries, sporting events, world holidays), celebrities (including fictional people like James Bond), and diseases like cancer and AIDS. Unsurprisingly, malaria – a disease that has afflicted humanity (and other animals) for millennia – created postage stamps to mark important events and people. In his review, Bernard Brabin explains how through them we have a unique record of malaria.

The 19th century has made great strides in our understanding of malaria, the parasite that causes it and how it is transmitted. Of the twenty investigators who contributed to this advance in our understanding, eleven had issued commemorative stamps from a national postal service (interestingly, all were in 20 countries).

Mini sheet of the Central African Republic with Ross and Grassi. Issued in 2015

Brabin, B. Malaria Journal (2021).

Amusingly (to me at least) some of the disputes between the investigators and their theories can be seen in the stamp designs. The 2015 Central African Republic postage stamp shows Ronald Ross and Giovanni Grassi who had different scientific views on the malaria parasite. In the 2015 stamp, Rossi and Grassi are represented equally – both have the same weight.

We often read of the mythical fountain of youth, but for a time a lake in Peru was ascribed miraculous healing powers. Cinchona bark was found to have fallen into the lake during an earthquake – the bark of the trees contains quinine (which was isolated by Pierre Joseph Pelletier and Joseph Caventou) and was found to be the compound that relieved fever. Postage stamps are also reminiscent of the lake.

Peru (1935) Wonderful lake water that cured fever

from Brabin, B. Malaria Journal (2021).

Between 1932 and 1954, postage stamps were first used to convey malaria control information to the general public. The first of its kind, issued in Italy in 1932, encouraged reclamation away from marshland (where malaria vectors thrive), and in 1939 Mexico issued a mandatory postage stamp depicting a man with a mosquito (to highlight the heavy burden of the disease) . The money raised has covered a significant portion of the cost of malaria control efforts in Mexico.

In 1955, WHO launched the first global campaign to eradicate malaria, and accompanying stamps featured iconic images of malaria in a variety of ways. For example, Afghanistan issued a postage stamp showing insecticide spraying, and India issued a postage stamp with an Anopheles mosquito, the Caduceus or Mercury and a factory (representing a DDT factory). These and various other stamps depicting “Days of Malaria Eradication” or the message “Destroy Malaria” were the forerunners of the WHO stamping initiative to eradicate malaria in 1962. Most of the stamps from the participating nations featured the design of an Anopheles Mosquito holding a globe with the Caduceus staff running up the center of the world. The 1962 initiative was seen as a widely successful advertising campaign to eradicate malaria.

Between 1970 and 1995 the global focus shifted from malaria eradication to control, and the national postage stamps issued during that period reflect this. However, between 1996 and 2020, a new three-pronged eradication strategy was developed during the second global campaign, focusing on aggressive control in endemic areas, gradual elimination to shrink the malaria map, and research into vaccines, therapeutics and vector control measures using newly developed technology. The stamps issued thus reflect a wider range of images: some contain scientific advances, others contain instructions on how to use vector control methods, and some contain powerful messages such as “Malaria: Blood Sweat and Tears” from Roll Back Malaria. At this time, stamps were issued in sheets and were also aimed at collectors – more than before.

Contrasting stamp designs illustrating the use of bed nets in early 21st century editions. Burkina Faso (2010); Solomon Islands (2013), Angola (2019). The Solomon Islands edition features an image from the Asian Pacific Malaria Elimination Network (APMEN) demonstrating the use of a net

from Brabin, B. Malaria Journal (2021)

Postage stamps have played an important role not only in marking events in the history of malaria, but also as a means of spreading awareness and information – and even raising money for control measures. Postage stamps are used almost everywhere (albeit to a lesser extent now with email and messaging apps) and I believe they are still an important, useful, and iconic part of the malaria eradication narrative.

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