As Statistica explains, malaria is an infectious disease that is spread by the bite of female mosquitoes infected with parasites. Symptoms usually appear 8 to 25 days after infection and although they may seem mild at first, if not treated, can become more severe and eventually lead to death. Malaria is often associated with poverty and has disproportionately affected poorer and developing countries in Africa. (About 93% of all malaria deaths globally occur in the 32 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.)
According to the latest World malaria report, there were 241 million cases of malaria in 2020, resulting in approximately 627,000 deaths.
Treating malaria has always posed a challenge. Prescription drugs, now available to those in wealthier nations, can treat the disease but efficacy depends on the type of malaria parasite and whether or not the parasite is resistant to the treatment. For many years, chloroquine phosphate was the preferred treatment for malaria, but when some parasites grew resistant to it, a substitute had to be found.
The successful effort to find something new was led by Tu Youyou, born in 1930 on the east coast of China. At age 16 she contracted tuberculosis, and after two years she recovered with the help of both modern and traditional medicines. This experience inspired an interest in medicine, and the belief that using both types of medicinal treatment might help fight disease.
In 1955, Youyou became a researcher at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing.
Chairman Mao Zedong launched Project 523 in 1967 to find a cure for chloroquine-resistant malaria, and in 1969, when Youyou was 39, she was appointed head of the project. She and the team began traveling to Chinese provinces to study the problem in situ.
Her team tested a number of traditional remedies, especially after hearing the story of a farmer who claimed qinghao, a grassy plant called sweet wormwood in English, had helped his fever go away. Many experiments coming up with formulations from qinghao failed, but her 191st experiment was finally successful. Youyou led her team to create the medicine artemisinin, also called qinghaosu in Chinese.
In 1986, the WHO recommended artemisinin combination therapy as the first line of defense against malaria. As the Nobel Prize website recounts, “The Lasker Foundation, which awarded Tu its Clinical Medical Research Award in 2011, called the discovery of artemisinin ‘arguably the most important pharmaceutical intervention in the last half-century.’”
In 2015, Tu Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Tu was the first Chinese Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine and the first female citizen of the People’s Republic of China to receive a Nobel Prize in any category. She was also the first Chinese person to receive the Lasker Award.
In an interview, Tu explained that her name, Youyou, was adapted by her father from a sentence that translates, “Deer bleat ‘youyou’ while they are eating the wild Hao” (note: ‘Hao’ in this context means qinghao) from the Chinese Book of Odes.. She observed: “How this links my whole life with qinghao will probably remain an interesting coincidence forever.”
The book concludes with a timeline, Author’s Note, and explanation of the scientific method.
Cartoon-like illustrations by the Chinese artist Lin are brightly colored and appealing.
Evaluation: This book for ages 5 and over gives an excellent overview of the arduous process underlying scientific discoveries, as well as showing the many rewards such a process can yield.
Published by Albert Whitman & Co., 2021