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Malaria is a serious and preventable disease. Travelers to regions of the world with malaria risk have two effective methods to prevent this infection: prophylactic medications—or medications you take as a preventative measure—and mosquito avoidance. There is no malaria vaccine.
What is malaria?
Malaria is a parasitic disease that annually infects about 250 million people and causes 1 million fatalities. Malaria hot spots are found in Asia, Africa, Mexico, and South America.
How is malaria transmitted?
Malaria is transmitted to humans by infected female Anopheles mosquitoes. You cannot catch malaria directly from an infected person. If a “healthy” mosquito bites and draws blood from an infected person, the mosquito can become infected and transmit the disease to its next human victim.
What are the symptoms?
Malaria can develop days or weeks after a mosquito bite. The parasite destroys human red blood cells which results in anemia. Sometimes, the onset of the disease is delayed, and a traveler may not develop symptoms until months or longer after returning home. These delayed cases may not be recognized if the prior travel history is not considered. Typical symptoms include fever, chills, nausea, joint pain, rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, and lethargy. In severe cases, coma and death can occur.
How is malaria diagnosed?
Physicians suspect malaria when an individual has compatible symptoms and was in an area with known malaria activity. There are blood tests available, but these may not be available in the developing world. The traditional diagnostic method is to examine the individual’s blood under the microscope to determine if the malaria parasites are present. There are also newer sophisticated laboratory techniques available to make the diagnosis.
Is treatment available?
Yes. There are effective medicines for malaria, but rapid diagnosis and treatment are essential.
For international travelers, who will not have quick access to health care, travel doctors may choose to prescribe medications for self-treatment in the event of infection. Many strains of malaria are resistant to certain drugs, so your travel doctor will need to carefully consider your itinerary before prescribing medicines.
Can malaria be prevented?
Definitely. There is no vaccine against malaria, so travelers must follow recommended preventative strategies.
Malaria risks in specific regions depend upon many factors, including mosquito population levels, weather conditions, and local infection rates. Therefore, travelers must seek advice from medical professionals who have current knowledge of the malaria risk in your destinations. Your travel doctor may advise prophylactic medications to prevent malaria. Knowing your itinerary is critical, as some anti-malarial medications are not effective in certain geographic regions because of drug resistance. It is critical to take these medicines for the full recommended course. Many travelers have developed malaria after prematurely stopping their prophylactic medicines when they return home.
In addition, travelers need to take precautions to avoid mosquito bites. Insect repellents and proper clothing treated with repellents are important strategies to minimize risk. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes tend to feed during dawn and dusk, so travelers should plan and prepare accordingly.