What is malaria?
Malaria is a serious and sometimes fatal disease caused by a parasite that commonly infects a certain type of mosquito which feeds on humans. People who get malaria are typically very sick with high fevers, shaking chills, and flu-like illness. Four kinds of malaria parasites infect humans: Plasmodium falciparum, P. vivax, P. ovale, and P. malariae. In addition, P. knowlesi, a type of malaria that naturally infects macaques in Southeast Asia, also infects humans, causing malaria that is transmitted from animal to human (“zoonotic” malaria). P. falciparum is the type of malaria that is most likely to result in severe infections and if not promptly treated, may lead to death. Although malaria can be a deadly disease, illness and death from malaria can usually be prevented.
The vast majority of cases are in travelers and immigrants returning from parts of the world where malaria transmission occurs, including sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that in 2020, 241 million clinical cases of malaria occurred, and 627,000 people died of malaria, most of them children in Africa. Because malaria causes so much illness and death, the disease is a great drain on many national economies. Since many countries with malaria are already among the poorer nations, the disease maintains a vicious cycle of disease and poverty.
How is malaria transmitted?
Usually, people get malaria by being bitten by an infective female Anopheles mosquito. Only Anopheles mosquitoes can transmit malaria and they must have been infected through a previous blood meal taken from an infected person. When a mosquito bites an infected person, a small amount of blood is taken in which contains microscopic malaria parasites. About 1 week later, when the mosquito takes its next blood meal, these parasites mix with the mosquito’s saliva and are injected into the person being bitten.
Because the malaria parasite is found in red blood cells of an infected person, malaria can also be transmitted through blood transfusion, organ transplant, or the shared use of needles or syringes contaminated with blood. Malaria may also be transmitted from a mother to her unborn infant before or during delivery (“congenital” malaria).
Is malaria a contagious disease?
No. Malaria is not spread from person to person like a cold or the flu, and it cannot be sexually transmitted. You cannot get malaria from casual contact with malaria-infected people, such as sitting next to someone who has malaria.
Who is at risk for malaria?
Anyone can get malaria. Most cases occur in people who live in countries with malaria transmission. People from countries with no malaria can become infected when they travel to countries with malaria or through a blood transfusion (although this is very rare). Also, an infected mother can transmit malaria to her infant before or during delivery.
Who is most at risk of getting very sick and dying?
Plasmodium falciparum is the type of malaria that most often causes severe and life-threatening malaria; this parasite is very common in many countries in Africa south of the Sahara desert. People who are heavily exposed to the bites of mosquitoes infected with P. falciparum are most at risk of dying from malaria. People who have little or no immunity to malaria, such as young children and pregnant women or travelers coming from areas with no malaria, are more likely to become very sick and die. Poor people living in rural areas who lack access to health care are at greater risk for this disease. As a result of all these factors, an estimated 90% of deaths due to malaria occur in Africa south of the Sahara; most of these deaths occur in children under 5 years of age.
What are the signs and symptoms of malaria?
Symptoms of malaria include fever and flu-like illness, including
- shaking chills,
- muscle aches, and
- Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea may also occur.
Malaria may cause anemia and jaundice (yellow coloring of the skin and eyes) because of the loss of red blood cells. If not promptly treated, the infection can become severe and may cause kidney failure, seizures, mental confusion, coma, and death.
How soon will a person feel sick after being bitten by an infected mosquito?
For most people, symptoms begin 10 days to 4 weeks after infection, although a person may feel ill as early as 7 days or as late as 1 year later. Two kinds of malaria, P. vivax and P. ovale, can occur again (relapsing malaria). In P. vivax and P. ovale infections, some parasites can remain dormant in the liver for several months up to about 4 years after a person is bitten by an infected mosquito. When these parasites come out of hibernation and begin invading red blood cells (“relapse”), the person will become sick.
How do I know if I have malaria for sure?
Most people, at the beginning of the disease, have fever, sweats, chills, headaches, malaise, muscles aches, nausea, and vomiting. Malaria can very rapidly become a severe and life-threatening disease. The surest way for you and your health-care provider to know whether you have malaria is to have a diagnostic test where a drop of your blood is examined under the microscope for the presence of malaria parasites. If you are sick and there is any suspicion of malaria (for example, if you have recently traveled in a country where malaria transmission occurs), the test should be performed without delay. Contact your HSP Clinic for this test on 0861 873 477 or email email@example.com
Prevention During Traveling
How do I find out what is the best drug to take to prevent malaria?
CDC has a list of all the places in the world where malaria transmission occurs and the malaria drugs that are recommended for prevention in each place.
Many effective antimalarial drugs are available. Your health-care provider and you will decide on the best drug for you, if any, based on your travel plans, medical history, age, drug allergies, pregnancy status, and other factors.
To allow enough time for some of the drugs to become effective and for a pharmacy to prepare any special doses of medicine (especially doses for children and infants), you may need to visit your health-care provider 4-6 weeks before travel. Other malaria medicines only need to be started the day before travel and so last-minute travelers can still benefit from a visit to their health-care provider before traveling.
What is known about the long-term effects of drugs that are commonly used to prevent malaria?
The drugs used to prevent malaria have been shown to be safe and well-tolerated for long term use.
Should infants and children be given antimalarial drugs?
Yes, but not all types of malaria drugs. Children of any age can get malaria and any child traveling to an area where malaria transmission occurs should use the recommended prevention measures, which often include an antimalarial drug. However, some antimalarial drugs are not suitable for children. Doses are based on the child’s weight.
Pregnancy, Preconception, and Breastfeeding
Pregnant women are advised not to travel to areas with Malaria. Malaria in pregnant women can be more severe than in women who are not pregnant. Malaria can increase the risk for serious pregnancy problems, including prematurity, miscarriage, and stillbirth. If travel to a malarious area cannot be postponed, use of an effective chemoprophylaxis regimen is essential. However, no preventive drugs are completely effective. Please consider these risks (and other health risks as well) and discuss them with your health-care provider.
Contact us to ensure you are covered before travel.