Debunking the Malaria Myth: Why Today’s Gin and Tonics Fall Short in Disease Prevention
Truly, the gin and tonic is one of the world’s most iconic cocktails. An easy combination of just two simple elements (plus a hearty lime wedge if you so desire), the gin and tonic drink has stood the test of time since its origins as a preventative measure for malaria.
But does this tasty cocktail still treat the commonly mosquito-transmitted disease as it used to?
A Gin and Tonic Does Not Prevent Malaria
Now regarded as a mixer more than a medicinal brew, tonic simply no longer contains the same amount of the malaria-curbing component, quinine, that it once did.
This means that drinking a gin and tonic made with modern tonic water does not prevent malaria. Neither does drinking just the tonic water or a bunch of gin. In fact, gin is actually a lucky bystander in this whole ordeal.
How Tonic Water Came to Be
Scottish doctor George Cleghorn is accredited with being the first to discover quinine’s potential in malaria treatment in the 1700s. Derived from the bark of the cinchona tree, quinine has also been employed to alleviate conditions like chills, leg cramps and even diarrhea.
Following Cleghorn’s discovery, British soldiers in India began to consume tonic water. However, its bitter taste led soldiers in the 1800s to reach for other ingredients to make it more palatable. Since rations of booze were considered an important facet of maintaining morale on ships, gin, the tipple of choice, was readily available. Thus, combining gin, citrus and tonic became the go-to way for a soldier to knock back the important malaria preventative. And, as you can guess, this led to the popularity of the gin and tonic cocktail once it was introduced to England.
You’d Have to Drink A Lot of Tonic to Reap Any Possible Benefits
According to Dr. Steve Meshnick, who has worked on tropical infectious diseases, primarily malaria, for over 30 years, modern tonic water is ineffective against malaria as it contains only 15 milligrams of quinine per liter. Meshnick’s chapter in “Malaria: Parasite Biology, Pathogenesis and Protection,” details that 67 liters of tonic water would need to be consumed to take in one gram of quinine, which is still not enough for proper malaria treatment. Read more on quinine dosage here.
It should also be noted that drinking 67 liters of tonic water should not be taken as a challenge, as other prevention methods are far more practical. Also, that’s seriously a lot of tonic water, and it’s safe to say you’d have a very bad time chugging all that incredibly sugary, fizzy liquid.
Two modern prevention and treatment methods for malaria include quinimax and quinidine, which are alkaloids actually derived from quinine. Quinimax is a combination of four alkaloids (quinine, quinidine, cinchonine and cinchonidine), while quinidine is a direct derivative of quinine. Both share similar anti-malarial properties as their parent compounds and are specifically recommended for severe malaria cases, according to research.
Other preventative measures for malaria include applying insect repellent to exposed skin, wearing long-sleeved clothing and long pants and using a mosquito net over a bed, per Stanford Medicine.
If you have a need to prevent or treat malaria, please consult a doctor or other medical professional. And if you want to responsibly drink a tasty cocktail, check out our roundup of which gins make the perfect gin and tonic.
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