What is malaria? What are the symptoms and how can it be treated? What you need to know before you travel.

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What is Malaria?

Malaria is a Plasmodium - parasitic micro-organism - spread by the female Anopheles mosquito. This mosquito type flourishes in warm, wet regions and is common in tropical and sub-tropical regions, from Central America to northern South America, sub-Saharan Africa and right across east and southeast Asia.

In 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) World Malaria Report highlighted that 445,000 people died from contracting malaria (down from 446,000), and approximately 216 million people were infected. Most people were from the African continent followed by southeast Asia and the Americas.

Symptoms of Malaria

The symptoms of malaria include:

  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue

Advanced cases can also show:

  • Jaundice
  • Seizure
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Disorientation
  • Coma
  • Death

Malaria Treatment

As malaria presents symptoms common in other medical conditions, it's important to get checked out as soon as possible. If treated early, malaria can be cured.

Anti-malarials are usually administered, and the type can vary depending on the severity of malaria and parasite type. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that if the right drugs are used and administered early, those infected with malaria can be cured and all parasites can be cleared from the patient's body.

However, if the wrong drugs are given and treatment is delayed, the disease can continue and lay dormant years later.

Is There a Vaccine?

Due to the complexity of the malaria parasite, there is no commercially available vaccine. WHO reports that researchers are still developing and trialing a vaccine.

However, travelers can take anti-malarial prophylaxis before heading into infected areas. But it's important to note that in some cases antimalarials are slowly becoming ineffective due to parasite resistance.

Determining which anti-malarial is best can depend on:

  • The age, fitness and medical history of the traveler.

  • The type of malaria parasite present in the destination country and its resistance level. Some drugs work better than others.

  • How long a traveler intends to spend in a country.

  • Medical treatment facilities in the destination country which can vary in terms of quantity, standard of care etc.

Malaria Risk Factors

According to the CDC, the likelihood of contracting malaria can depend on many factors:

  • Complacency with using insect repellents.

  • Immunity (repeated infections can result in partial immunity).

  • Pregnancy.

  • Exposure to mosquito breeding environments.

  • Being outdoors at night, which can increase exposure.

  • Travel to rural areas where people may come in contact with domesticated animals which provide infected mosquitos with a free meal.

Malaria Prevention

The best ways to prevent malaria include:

  • Bite prevention , including covering up with long-sleeved clothing, using a mozzie net at night and applying a strong insect repellent.

  • Taking antimalarials before heading to infected destinations.

  • Avoiding places with standing water e.g ponds, large puddles, urns, containers, tires etc.

  • For pregnant women travelers, it's advised to avoid locations where malaria is endemic due to the risk of miscarriage and poor fetal development.

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