Malaria in Montreal…it can happen again

When the Montreal General Hospital first opened in 1823, three percent of the first 3665 medical cases treated were for malaria. Yep, malaria…in Montreal.

Our lovely grey city used to be surrounded by a lot more swamp and marshland than it is now. Cases of malaria stretched from here all the way out to the prairies. And we can still get malaria in Montreal; the host of the malaria parasite is the Anopheles mosquito, who lives here, too.

The decrease in Montreal malaria cases happened because we removed their habitat by draining swamps and wetlands, and started to put screens on our windows. European malaria treatment was also improving, which decreased the amount of cases from travelers.

If you’ve ever walked by a pond or swampy area that had even a smidgeon of shade in the summer, you’ll have noticed that within seconds, you’re running frantically away because you’ve suddenly found about one hundred mosquitoes swarming around you, like a vampiric daytime rave. This is because mosquitoes lay their eggs in stagnant water.

It is said that more soldiers died of malaria than from bullets in World War II, and soldiers today are still plagued by the disease when abroad. People living in regions where malaria is endemic generally build up a tolerance for it, but they are still weakened, sick, and unable to work, which affects livelihoods and their ability to overcome poverty.

Scientists back in the 1950s thought they cracked the malaria problem by introducing DDT and spraying it everywhere, even dusting soldiers with it before they went to battle. It worked – only too well – and ended up also wiping out birds, which led to its eventual ban thanks to a pivotal book by Rachel Carson called Silent Spring. This book is also widely credited for kick-starting the environmental movement in the 1960s.

If climate change were to affect our region by making it warmer, it’s very likely that we’d see malaria in Montreal again. This Weather Network report outlines how this can happen.

The malaria life cycle and you

With dangerous pesticides like DDT now banned, dealing with the return of malaria in our part of the world would be a challenge, though humans do adapt to its effects over time.

This scenario is more likely than you would think. While Toronto is the most culturally diverse city in the world, Montreal is not that far behind. With thousands of people flying in and out of the city – some of them immigrants, some passers-by, some vacationers, aid workers or others  – many are coming from regions where they’ve likely been exposed to malaria.


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