How a Gin and Tonic Can Cure Malaria

In the depths of the Andean jungle, some 400 years ago, a young native Indian was lost, ill and struck with a high fever. He was stumbling around the forest, slowly losing his mind. In an act of desperation, he drank from a pool of stale water next to a tree. The taste was bitter, suddenly it struck him that he could be poisoned. He frantically looked around and realised the water had come from the quina-quina tree. Hours later his fever subsided and he began to regain his bearings. Unaware of his monumental discovery, he ran back to his village and shared the news. The accidental discovery that this child had made was one of the world’s life changing discoveries. The cure against malaria had been found. The natives to these lands used it again to treat fevers and chills for years to come. The active agent in the stale, bitter water was quinine, a component in the bark of the tree.

Some years later in the 17th century, the bark of the quina-quina tree called “Chinchona bark” was brought over to Europe from the high altitude regions of South America by the Jesuit priests. At this point in time, the trees medicinal properties had not fully been examined nor understood. It was simply used to treat fever like symptoms. Many people had been met with great scepticism over the magical properties of the Chinchona bark mainly due to the fact that merchants were unable to distinguish the Chinchona bark from other similar trees and therefore caused confusion.

The fear of overexploitation was a growing fear amongst the European scientists, as they were unsure of how long the supplies would last. Due to this, plantations were set up in various European colonies to produce the Chinchona bark to meet the high demand of the European community. However, this solution was met with many problems. The quina-quina tree flourished in the remote areas of the Andes and any attempt to grow the quina-quina tree in foreign soils failed. This sparked interest in two English men by the names of Richard Spruce and C. R. Markham, and a Frenchman called H. A. Weddell. Together in 1859, the dynamic trio along with a group of hopefuls attempted to obtain the plants and seed them elsewhere. Their first attempt began with the Cinchona calisaya tree, which couldn’t take to foreign soils. Their next attempt proved more profitable with the Cinchona succirubra tree, which enabled them to set up plantations in India, Ceylon and Java. This colonial exploitation proved immensely successful for imperialistic United Kingdom and France, and allowed them to regain their global dominance.

The use of quinine before 1820, as a medical cure, had been to dry and grind the tree bark to a fine powder and mix it with a liquid compound to ready it for consumption. However, in 1820, two French men by the names of Pierre Joseph Pelletier and Joseph Caventou extracted and purified the quinine from the bark. From this point onwards, this purified version was used as the new standard treatment for malaria. The isolated active ingredient allowed for the industrial production of the drug. This was very important as malaria had spread amongst European armies and colonies, causing victims to drop like flies. Industrial production of this scale allowed colonists to ship out the drug to their countrymen, thus preventing countless deaths. In 1825 British officers in the Indian Army improved this bitter medicine by mixing it with soda water, sugar, and gin.

Quinine remained the first line of treatment for malaria up to the 1920s. The development of more effective synesthetic anti-malarias predominated and became the WHO’s recommended drug therapy, one of these drugs being the closely related chloroquinine. However, as with mass usage of any drug, chloroquine resistance has already been recorded world-wide in malaria hotspots around the world. Due to this, heavy pressure had been put on the scientific community to synthesize new effective drugs to combat the disease. Combination therapies have been the best treatment thus far, but as history loves to repeat itself, resistance to quinine is inevitable and so more research and funding is desperately needed to fight against this nightmare disease.

So next time you’re enjoying a nice cold gin and tonic, remember that you’re drinking something that has saved countless lives, and of course, enjoy it!

[Gillian Merriman]


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