Thalassaemia and malaria, revisited
Haldane's attractive hypothesis that the high gene frequencies for thalassaemia in the Mediterranean population may have resulted from heterozygote advantage in regions where Plasmodium falciparum malaria was common in the past has been extremely difficult to verify at the population or experimental level. However, the molecular era has provided some powerful new tools to attack this old problem. It is now clear that the thalassaemias are the commonest monogenic diseases in man, with a broad distribution throughout the Mediterranean, Middle East, Indian sub-continent and South-east Asia. All these populations have specific types of thalassaemia mutations which, presumably, have arisen locally and been expanded by selection together with drift and founder effect. Recent work indicates that alpha thalassaemia provides protection against severe malaria. Quite unexpectedly at least some of this protection may be mediated by rendering very young children more susceptible to both P. vivax and P. falciparum malaria; such early immunization may provide some protection against the disease in later life.