King Tutankhamun, an Egyptian pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, discovered with his tomb almost completely intact by Howard Carter in 1922 and made funny by Steve Martin a half-century later, likely died of malaria after a degenerative bone condition weakened his immune system. It was not foul play as was previously suspected. Or at least that’s what a team led by Zahi Hawass, the leader of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo, is saying after running a series of DNA tests on Tut’s mummified body. Others disagree.
Regardless, the statement made by Hawass should be a reminder of what disease wears the crown. Yes, malaria has been around since Tut died, 1323 B.C. In fact, the parasite may have been infecting humans for as long as humans have been around. Sneferu, who ruled Egypt 1,200 years before Tut, used a bed net to protect himself against malaria, as did Cleopatra 1,300 years later. No bed nets were found in Tut’s tomb.
Since Tut’s time, millions have died from malaria. It’s impossible to know how many, but this formula would lead us to believe that 1.45 trillion “person-years” have passed since then. Currently, a million people — mostly children under the age of five — die every year (6.8 billion “person-years” in 2009) from malaria. That’s 3 per 10,000, or, in total, 435 million starting with Tut. For reference, 15 million died in World War I, 70 million died in World War II, and the Black Death killed up to 100 million, still less than a quarter of malaria’s toll.
Malaria has been killing people for as long as there have been people and destroying their livelihoods as long as there have been economies. However, at this moment in history, we are better prepared than ever to combat our oldest foe. Recently, Bill Gates, who has put the weight of his fortune behind fighting the disease, said a vaccine might be ready in as few as three years. And, the United Nations Foundation’s Nothing But Nets is currently working to cover the continent of Africa with bed nets, a low-cost solution that reduces the risk of malaria infection by up to 90 percent. If the winter weather has got you pining for summer blockbusters, join this epic battle; spend $10. Send a net, save a life.