What is Malaria? Malaria is a tropical infectious disease that is generally contracted from the bite of a female mosquito infected with a malaria parasite. This mosquito got infected by biting a malaria patient. There are five species of malaria parasite, of which Plasmodium falciparum is the most dangerous. Only the females of the Anopheles mosquito can transmit the malaria parasite.
You can also get infected by:
- A blood transfusion
- An organ transplant
- Contaminated needles
- Puncture wounds from injection needles
- And in rare cases: from mother to child (congenital transmission)
Malaria is in tropical destinations
Often contracted by travellers to the tropics, malaria is a serious illness that poses a very real health risk if you travel to malarial areas without taking precautions. There is no malaria vaccination. Malaria pills generally offer protection. Mosquito nets, window screens, insect repellents and other anti-mosquito measures may also help prevent you from getting the disease. If you contract malaria anyway, there are very effective treatments available. Timely diagnosis is essential to prevent serious complications, or even death.
The course of untreated malaria
As soon as you are infected with the malaria parasite, this single-celled organism multiplies inside your body. It starts in your liver and then moves on to your red blood cells. As the parasite multiplies, the red blood cells succumb and burst open. This cycle keeps repeating itself unless you get treatment. Every time red blood cells are destroyed, you develop flu-like symptoms, such as fever, diarrhoea and vomiting. You could also develop anaemia if too many red blood cells are destroyed. This drop in haemoglobin leads to anoxia: your organs don’t get enough oxygen, which in turn causes various health issues. If the malaria is severe, you could also have convulsions, lose consciousness, slip into a coma and die.
Incubation time of malaria
The incubation time of malaria depends on the kind of parasite you are carrying. Symptoms usually start between 10 days and 6 weeks after the initial mosquito bite.
The symptoms of malaria
The symptoms of malaria depend partly on the kind of malaria you have. Some symptoms overlap. Moreover, your personal situation plays a part in the nature of your symptoms. For example, malaria symptoms are more severe in children under 3 months, pregnant women and people without a spleen.
Five variations of malaria
There are five variations of malaria, each one caused by a different malaria parasite. These are: Plasmodium falciparum, Plasmodium vivax, Plasmodium malariae, Plasmodium ovale, and Plasmodium knowlesi.
Malaria tropica: the most dangerous form of malaria
Plasmodium falciparum is the most dangerous malaria parasite, as stated above. This parasite causes the deadliest form of malaria. This strain is also known as ‘malaria tropica’. In tropical malaria, high fevers are often seen every day. If not treated effectively, malaria tropica leads to death within days. This is partly because the infection blocks small blood vessels in essential organs. In the end, this leads to total organ failure and cessation of vital functions.
Malaria tertiana and malaria quartana
The other malaria parasites usually cause a less severe course of the disease. These malaria strains cause bouts of high fever in the patient every third day (after 48 hours) or fourth day (after 72 hours), often combined with chills. These malaria strains are also called ‘malaria tertiana’ (caused by Plasmodium vivax and Plasmodium ovale) and ‘malaria quartana’ (caused by Plasmodium malariae).
The Plasmodium knowlesi parasite causes a form of malaria in monkeys. These days, however, more and more humans are infected with this strain.
Main malaria symptoms
An overview of the main malaria symptoms:
- High fever
- Excessive sweating
- Muscle pain/joint pain
- Enlarged liver and spleen
- Loss of consciousness
How can you prevent malaria?
When you travel, it is always important to prepare properly. This is especially important if you choose a remote destination that lacks a proper health care system. This is the place where you risk getting nasty diseases. Malaria is only one of the possible culprits. This is why you should always check which diseases are common in the country or countries you are travelling to and take the necessary precautions. There are lots of websites that can give you all the information you need.
If malaria is a risk in your intended destination, you can protect yourself in several ways. Make sure you:
- Take malaria pills preventively
- Use anti-mosquito precautions
Malaria pills usually provide good protection against malaria, if they are taken exactly as prescribed. Even if you take the malaria pills, there is always a small chance you will get infected anyway. If that is the case, the pills make sure that it takes longer for any (possible) dangerous complications to set in. This gives you more time to start the right treatment .
There are several kinds of malaria pills. Examples are: Doxycycline, Lariam, Malarone and Paludrine. The kind that is prescribed for you depends on:
- The malaria strain that is common in your travel destination
- The duration of your stay
- How healthy you are
- Other medication you are currently using
Malaria can be prevented by making sure the mosquitoes don’t bite you. Malaria mosquitoes bite in the evening and at night, so this is when you need protection most. Protect yourself by:
- Wearing long-sleeved shirts and long trousers, preferably in light colours
- Using an insect repellent on any exposed skin, preferably a repellent containing 30% DEET
- Keeping mosquitoes out of your residence. Air-conditioning or a fan can help
- Sleeping in a mosquito net
- Using a mosquito coil when you are sitting outside
Even if you take appropriate precautions, be aware that you may still be bitten by a malaria mosquito and contract malaria.
Treatment for malaria
If you suspect that you have any malaria symptoms, whether you are still travelling or back home, you should contact a doctor immediately. Malaria is easily treated. However, to prevent any serious complications, the treatment has to be started as soon as possible.
Once malaria is diagnosed, the treatment will be anti-malaria medication. The most modern and effective treatment is a combination of medication. The method is called: ‘Artemisinin-based Combination Therapy’ (ACT).
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Last updated on July 14, 2016.