How the Yishuv, with Help from Louis Brandeis, Solved Its Malaria Problem

May 10, 2018 | Anton Alexander
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At the time of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, malaria was such a severe problem in the swampy areas of the land of Israel that the disease came close to crippling Britain’s military efforts against the Ottomans. In the early years of British rule, it was generally assumed that only massive drainage projects, far too expensive for Jewish settlements to undertake, could eliminate or even reduce the prevalence of malaria. But Louis Brandeis—who had been infected with the disease in his childhood—believed that the problem required a solution and, after his 1919 visit to Palestine, tasked the Zionist public-health expert Israel Kligler with fixing it. Anton Alexander writes:

In December 1920, Kligler went to Palestine to direct the laboratories of Hadassah Hospital and also with a view of coming to grips with the malaria situation. After arriving and quickly studying the situation, he agreed with Brandeis that if malaria could not be eliminated in Palestine, a Jewish homeland there was in all probability impossible. . . .

Kligler’s plan for malaria elimination [was] to focus principally on the destruction of the breeding sites of the mosquito that carried the disease. His proposed method included engaging with the whole rural Palestine population to . . . secure the cooperation of both Arab and Jewish local communities who would also maintain the anti-malaria [efforts] which he intended to carry out, and thereby ensure the mosquito did not return to their districts.

Kligler’s [innovation] was to think not of malaria control [as something to be effected by] thousands of employed personnel, but to seek instead malaria elimination through involvement of the population by culturally sensitive education. Without Brandeis’s personal financial contribution toward his experimental demonstrations, Kligler could never have demonstrated the success of his approach. And subsequently, as a result of the successful demonstrations, future funding was secured to begin malaria-elimination coverage of the whole country. . . .

Palestine [thus] in 1922 became the first place anywhere to implement a successful national malaria campaign. The first breach of the [regnant] barrier posed by fatalism with regard to malaria elimination began 100 years ago in Palestine. [In Theodor Herzl’s words], “If you will it, it is no dream.”

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