Although it has been thoroughly studied for quite some time, malaria remains a serious disease in the tropics where billions of people live in areas at risk of infection and about half a million people die from the disease annually. It is particularly prevalent in Africa. Our knowledge of the disease has grown over time, but continued research is necessary to truly combat it. When I think of geography research in the tropics, my first thought is conservation methods like protected areas. Recently, a paper by researchers at Penn State was published in Applied Geography that looks for connections between these protected areas in Africa and malaria. The two research questions that are examined are whether malaria prevalence is affected by proximity to protected areas or the land uses and restrictions therein.
Many different factors must be considered when studying malaria including climatic elements, land uses, and degree of development of the communities in a given area. Seven different species of malaria are included in the research. The work also uses the seven distinct categories of protected areas given by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The protected areas contribute to additional factors involved in enabling malaria presence such as biodiversity and human action. Some of the protected area categories prevent people from entering those spaces and potentially encountering malariainfected mosquitoes.
The hypotheses were evaluated using GIS analysis and data from the Malaria Atlas Project and World Database on Protected Areas. They found that malaria prevalence does indeed differ based on which category of protected area is most near to a study site. The disease was less likely to be encountered near wilderness areas (with little human activity) and protected landscapes (where human activity has fewer limitations) than strict nature reserves (with the strongest restrictions) and natural monuments (with limitations on resource extraction but not entrance and recreation). A relationship was also found between proximity to the areas and lower malaria rates.
The results show that there is not a clear relationship between strength of limitations on human activity and malaria prevalence. Designations with both strong and relatively weaker limitations ended among both high and low malaria rates. Perhaps physical factors play a greater role in the spread of malaria than the sort of activities that people conduct in a protected area. Likewise, proximity to protected areas can be used to predict low rates of malaria in areas where the disease already exists. It does not however correlate strongly to whether or not malaria is present or absent at a given site. The locations of the protected areas have their own conditions which may affect malaria as well. For example, the designation of a protected area may rely on a certain population density which also plays a role in that area’s malaria rates. This research is productive for malaria prevention despite its unclear conclusions. “ Generating a greater understanding of the potential impacts of [protected areas] on malaria dynamics will be crucial to developing proactive management approaches to address and reduce malaria incidence within and surrounding [protected areas].”