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How The U.S. Stopped Malaria, One Cartoon At A Time

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"Her business is robbery and coldblooded murder ... they call her Annie Awful ... She's a thief and a killer. She stops at nothing."

Those lines sound like they're from an old detective movie, but they're actually from a 1943 public health cartoon aimed at preventing malaria. That dangerous dame, Annie Awful, is Anopheles — the family of mosquitoes that transmits the malaria parasite.

The cartoon's creator was the predecessor of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today the CDC is the world's top authority on an array of germs and viruses. But its origins are deeply rooted in malaria — and war.

The CDC was founded during World War II as the Office of Malaria Control in War Areas. The agency was charged with eradicating malaria in the South, especially around military bases. It ran mosquito abatement programs and publicity campaigns denouncing the insects, such as the animated film above.

At the same time, the U.S. Army was working hard to eliminate the parasite on military bases and among the troops. They broadcasted anti-malaria jingles on the Armed Forces Radio and distributed cartoons and "pinup calendars" encouraging troops to cover up and use repellent.

Through the groups' combined efforts, the U.S. officially eradicated malaria in 1951. The CDC, though, still remains very involved with malaria research around the globe.

The agency's labs can carry out complicated chemical analysis of insecticide levels on bed nets or decode the molecular structures inside the malaria parasite.

And, CDC has become a resource for scientists in Africa, Southeast Asia and many developing countries, where malaria remains one the most significant health problems.

Last year, the CDC tallied 1,600 domestic malaria cases inside the U.S. All of these were in people who'd picked up the parasite outside of the country.

The low number of domestic cases poses a challenge for health care facilities, which rarely encounter the disease and may have difficulty diagnosing it. With malaria, a rapid diagnosis can be crucial because the disease can kill a person in a matter of days.

So the CDC helps local doctors, hospitals and health departments identify the parasite from pictures of blood. Local health workers can even send images of parasites via email for so-called telediagnosis.

Last year, the CDC fielded 450 inquiries for telediagnosis of suspected parasitic infections. About a third of those cases turned out to be malaria.

Microbiologist Blaine Mathison, one of two scientists who perform telediagnosis at the CDC, says he can even analyze an image of a blood smear straight off his BlackBerry. "I remember once," he says, "I've actually sat at Turner Field at a Braves game and done diagnostics while watching a ballgame."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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