Malaria is an infection caused by single-celled parasites that enter the blood through the bite of an Anopheles mosquito. These parasites, called plasmodia, belong to at least five species.
Plasmodium parasites spend several parts of their life cycle inside humans and another part inside mosquitoes. During the human part of their life cycle, Plasmodium parasites infect and multiply inside liver cells and red blood cells.
Some infected blood cells burst because of the multiplying parasites inside. Many more infected red blood cells are broken down by your spleen or liver, which filter out and remove damaged or ageing red blood cells from circulation. Both Plasmodium parasites in the bloodstream and irritants that are released from broken red blood cells cause malaria symptoms.
People who have lived all their life in a country with a high rate of malaria have typically been exposed to malaria parasites many times. After the first exposure, your immune system begins to work in your favour, so re-infection may cause few or no symptoms. However, your immune system does not remain active against malaria for more than a few years, if you are not exposed again. This explains why people can live for years in the tropics without being bothered by malaria. Yet, if they should spend several years in another country they tend to lose their immune protection.
People who have never had a malaria infection (such as young children and travelers) and pregnant women are more likely to have severe symptoms from malaria. Usually, symptoms appear within the first few weeks after the infected mosquito has bitten a person.
In regions where there is a high rate of malaria infection, malaria can be spread in other ways as well, such as through contaminated blood transfusions, transplantation of contaminated organs and shared drug needles. In pregnant women, malaria infection can pass through the bloodstream to the developing fetus, causing low birth weight or fetal death.
Malaria is one of the major causes of preventable death in the world today. It affects more than 500 million people worldwide and causes 1 to 2 million deaths every year. It is a tropical disease, and therefore rare in countries like the United States and European countries. There you mostly see cases in people who have traveled from countries where malaria is common.
In the tropics, the particular species of Plasmodium varies from country to country. In some areas, new strains of malaria have emerged that are resistant to some antimalarial drugs. This emergence of drug-resistant strains has complicated the treatment and prevention of malaria in tropical countries and in travelers.
Symptoms of malaria can begin as early as six to eight days after a bite by an infected mosquito, and they include:
- High fever (up to 105 degrees Fahrenheit) with shaking chills
- Profuse sweating when the fever suddenly subsides
- Muscle aches
- Abdominal discomfort
- Nausea, vomiting
- Feeling faint when you stand up or sit up quickly
If treatment is delayed, more severe complications of malaria can occur. These include:
- Brain tissue injury, which can cause extreme sleepiness, delirium, unconsciousness, convulsions and coma;
- Pulmonary edema, which is a dangerous accumulation of fluid inside the lungs that interferes with breathing;
- Kidney failure;
- Severe anemia, resulting from the destruction of infected red blood cells and decrease in the production of new red blood cells;
- Yellow discoloration of the skin;
- Low blood sugar.
Your doctor may suspect that you have malaria based on your symptoms and your history of foreign travel. When your doctor examines you, he or she may find an enlarged spleen because the spleen commonly swells during a malaria infection.
To confirm the diagnosis of malaria, your doctor will take samples for blood tests, in order to determine whether malaria has affected your levels of red blood cells and platelets, the ability of your blood to clot, your blood chemistry, and your liver and kidney function.
With proper treatment, symptoms of malaria usually go away quickly, with a cure within two weeks. Without proper treatment, malaria episodes (fever, chills, sweating) can return periodically over a period of years. After repeated exposure, patients will become partially immune and develop milder symptoms of the disease.
Researchers are working to create a vaccine against malaria. Vaccination is expected to become an important tool to prevent malaria in the future.
One way to prevent malaria is to avoid mosquito bites altogether, with the following strategies:
- Stay indoors in well-screened areas, as much as possible, especially at night when mosquitoes are most active.
- Use mosquito nets and bed nets. It’s best to treat the nets with the insect repellant.
- Wear clothing that covers most of your body.
- Apply insect repellent to clothing.
It is strongly recommended that you take preventive medication when you travel to a region of the world that has malaria. Keep in mind that these medications can prevent most malaria infections, but travelers occasionally get malaria even when they are taking one of these drugs. Ask your doctor to prescribe the correct anti-malaria medication with the least side effects. If, however, you develop an illness with fever within a year of your return, seek immediate medical attention and tell a health care professional about your travel.
As we commemorate World Malaria Day this month, let us be extra diligent in spreading awareness and knowledge of the disease. With so many preventable deaths occurring each year, enough information and aids are clearly not reaching those that can benefit from it the most.
Don’t let a tiny bug cause mayhem in your life and the lives of your loved ones. Let’s help each other fight this silent killer. When you plan on visiting areas that are known Malaria zones, make sure you speak to any of our pharmacists for the best possible products and do your best to stay safe. Your life really depends on it.